What if we could design the perfect tree?
This super tree should provide an abundance of food for wildlife. Let's say from six to 10 times the amounts of nuts as the average oak tree. While were at it, let's make all those nuts larger and more nutritious than acorns and good tasting to humans as well. And to ensure the reliability of this great food source, we'll have our tree flower late in the spring, well after the possibility of a late killing frost that can devastate the acorn crop some years.
Next, let's make our tree one that grows fast, straight and large. So large, in fact, that a single specimen could yield thousands of board feet of highly desirable lumber. And that lumber will be strong, rot resistant, and easily worked, making it suitable for many purposes.
But if all this sounds like so much science fiction, it really is not. The American chestnut tree was all these things and more. Some historians estimate that until the early part of the 20th century as many as one in four trees in the forests of the Northeast was an American chestnut. The value of those mighty trees as both a source of food and lumber was almost incalculable. As a species, it was rightfully called the "King of the Forest.''
Sadly, however, we must now refer to the glory of the American chestnut in the past tense. An Asian fungus that causes chestnut blight was accidentally introduced to North America in 1904. That insidious disease rapidly spread throughout the native range of the American chestnut, eventually infecting and killing every member of the species. By the 1950s, mature chestnut trees were gone almost everywhere.
Ironically, the American chestnut is not extinct. In fact, it technically is not endangered or even rare. New trees continually sprout from the still viable root systems of blight-killed chestnuts. Some of these trees may even live long enough to produce some nuts, which will could in turn produce American chestnut seedlings. But all of them are doomed to be infected with the blight and die well before reaching maturity.
So instead of the proud trees that once dominated the forest canopy, the American chestnut is now little more than a sickly race of immature trees. But that dismal outlook may be about to change for the better.
After nearly 30 years of research and selective breeding, The American Chestnut Foundation has developed a blight-resistant American chestnut tree. Over the next five years, a limited amount of blight-resistant seeds produced by those genetically engineered trees will be used for experimental restoration plantings, with widespread availability of seeds expected in the next 10 years.
Although the return of the American chestnut appears to have a bright future, there is still plenty of work to be done. TACF and its 16 state chapters rely heavily on the efforts of dedicated volunteers. The Pennsylvania chapter maintains more than 150 chestnut research and demonstration orchards where volunteers assist with orchard maintenance, planting, and outreach programs.
For more information about the history of the American chestnut and the work of TACF, see the feature article I wrote in the August issue of Pennsylvania Outdoor Times magazine, which will be in Monday's Altoona Mirror. To learn more about the organization and how to become involved with its worthwhile projects, see the TACF website - www.acf.org - or the Pennsylvania TACF website - www.patacf.org.
A new local Huntingdon County branch of TACF will be hosting a special fundraising event on Aug. 21 at the Raystown Lake complex, designed to give new TACF members a firsthand look at some of the work being done by the organization in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers. The celebration will begin with a 4:30 p.m. with an educational tour of the active American chestnut breeding orchard on Army Corps of Engineers property, followed by a social hour, speakers, raffles and auctions. Tickets are $60 for individuals and $80 for couples and include one TACF membership. Those who cannot attend the event can become members of TACF for only $40.
Most exciting is a limited amount of blight-resistant seed will be available for the first time to those holding sponsor level memberships, which start at $350. This represents a unique and special opportunity for individual landowners to grow this great tree on their properties once again and to support the long-term restoration efforts of TACF.
Tickets or membership requests can be sent to PA-TACF, Raystown Branch, C/O Lori Krause, 7478 Country Hill Drive, Huntingdon, PA 16652. Questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org or 643-2372.