Before globalization and colonialism brought the invasive chestnut blight pathogen to American soils, for thousands of years, the Cherokee made a cough syrup from the leaves of the American chestnut tree. The Cherokee also took an infusion of year old chestnut for heart trouble. Today, the knowledge of this culturally significant tree is fading for two reasons: The Indian Removal Act displaced Cherokee people from their home lands where the chestnut grew and the American chestnuts have been reduced to stump sprouts by the introduction of chestnut blight. Thanks to a friendship of two pastors, a partnership is now in the making to return the American chestnut to tribal, sovereign lands.
Atop a pristine mountain in the American chestnut’s native range, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) celebrated a new partnership with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signing ceremony. Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley, and Lisa Thomson, TACF’s President & CEO signed the agreement. The purpose of this MOU is to establish a demonstration orchard for the restoration of the American chestnut tree using local genetics, and collaborate on the management requirements for sustaining repopulation of the American chestnut tree. The site will be the location of a chestnut orchard to evaluate scientific progress on developing blight-resistant American chestnuts and to begin producing seed for distribution across tribal lands.
The partnership between EBCI and TACF began through the rekindling of a generational friendship. This sincere outreach was begun by two important members of our communities, EBCI tribal elder Jimbo Sneed and the late father of TACF’s director emeritus Rex Mann, who grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Rex was interested in sharing with Jimbo, and his son Dike, the importance of his life’s work which is to restore the American chestnut back to our forests.
TACF’s President and CEO Lisa Thomson said, “The formalization of our trusted partnership was built on this premise of returning something to the forests important to the Cherokees of yester year and hoping that other tribes within the former range of the tree might also be interested in participating in this long-term, hopeful rescue mission.”
The EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle said, “I hope that one day in the future, 200, 500, a thousand years from now, those generations can stand next to a 6 or 8-foot diameter chestnut tree in our mountains and be able to trace the story of that tree back to today.”
The Institute for American Indian Studies has archived that the Iroquois ground the wood of this tree into a powder to use on the chafed skin of babies and the meat of the nut was ground and combined with bear grease and used to treat hair. Another use was to mix the bark of this tree into dog food to treat worms. The Mohegan’s made tea from the leaves to treat rheumatism and colds. An infusion of leaves was also used to treat whooping cough. Chestnuts were roasted, ground into flour for cakes and bread and stewed into puddings and soups.
The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) leads an ambitious mission to restore an iconic, keystone tree. Four billion American chestnuts, Castanea dentata, once covered 200 million acres of Eastern U.S. forests. Its ecological and economic significance was unparalleled. Wildlife was dependent on its nuts and pollen, and humans used the rot-resistant timber for buildings.
In the late 1800s, a fungal blight, introduced through the global horticultural trade, began to decimate the American chestnut. For decades, serious attempts and millions of dollars were spent in attempts to save the species, but by the 1950s the trees were eliminated as a canopy species, and the rescue mission was abandoned by the early 1960s.
Chestnut blight only kills the tree above its roots and millions of American chestnuts survive today from stump sprouts. The blight usually kills the stems of American chestnuts before the trees can grow to the forest canopy and as a result, the species cannot compete and reproduce self-sustaining populations. In 1983, a group of geneticists had the idea to create a blight-resistant tree, bred with its Asian cousins who are naturally resistant to the blight and TACF was born. Now more than 100,000 trees have been bred on TACF’s research farm and thousands of volunteers manage more than 500 research orchards. TACF’s 7th generation of hybrid American chestnut has intermediate levels of blight resistance and additional generation breeding may be required to enhance the hybrid trees’ resistance.
In parallel, scientists from the State University of New York – College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) have enhanced blight resistance by inserting a gene from wheat into American chestnut. This gene detoxifies an acid produced by the chestnut blight fungus, reducing the severity of stem cankers. Currently, the genetically engineered variety of American chestnut (known as Darling 58) is regulated by the U.S. federal government, but SUNY-ESF and TACF are petitioning the government for non-regulated status to distribute these trees. There is a need to establish long-term restoration trials using both traditionally bred and offspring of genetically engineered American chestnut trees to determine if these trees have the necessary blight resistance, forest competitiveness, and ecological characteristics for the species to resume its former role as a dominant canopy species.
Rapid advances in our science encourages us that restoration of the American chestnut is possible within the foreseeable future. TACF’s Director of Science, Dr. Jared Westbrook said, “As we continue forward, we embrace cutting-edge technology, so that we can understand the genetic basis of local adaptation in American chestnut. Ultimately the goal is to represent enough genetic diversity in the breeding program so that American chestnut restoration populations can adapt to the changing climate.” We feel tremendous urgency to get ahead of the rapid degradation of our forests caused by the introduction of invasive pests and pathogens, and to begin our efforts to reintroduce the species at the ecosystem level. Importantly, the science, technology, and management practices being developed to restore the American chestnut can be used to save and restore other imperiled tree species.
TACF has played the lead role in American chestnut research spanning more than three decades with much of its field work performed by dedicated volunteers. Our long-term goal is to reintroduce blight-resistant trees and have nature to take over and create self-sustaining populations, with disease-resistance growing stronger with each succeeding generation. TACF and its partners like EBCI are restoring a natural legacy, a gift to propel future generations to become stewards of a better world. The chestnut is a paradigm for the hope that exists for all threatened species.