This time of year a century ago, Kentucky ridges would have looked almost snowy with blooms from the American chestnut tree.
It’s a sight local volunteers want future generations to see again.
American chestnuts — massive hardwoods highly prized for their timber, tannin and nuts — were all but lost a half-century ago to an Asian blight that killed 4 billion of them, decimating 25 percent of the Eastern U.S. tree canopy.
But years of efforts to restore the American chestnut are finally taking root across the country — and in the Louisville area.
Nuts from a major research farm in Virginia that were bred over 28 years to be blight resistant were planted at public and private sites in the Louisville area this year. Only a limited number of nuts were available.
Also, members of the Kentucky chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation are breeding offspring of the state’s 20 surviving trees for blight resistance and research. An orchard in Oldham County is expected to bear nuts this fall for the first time.
The ultimate goal is to restore the American chestnut to the Eastern forest, where it was once the dominant hardwood, so it can again provide an abundance of high-quality food for wildlife and strong, rot-resistant timber for building needs, said Bryan Burhans, president and CEO of the American Chestnut Foundation.
“We want to bring back an iconic tree species that was so much a part of history, culture and heritage,” he said. “There was no other tree that could replace the niche that it occupied.”
Louisville-area volunteers who are planting and growing American chestnuts say their work will help the public learn about the tree.
“I’m anxious to see them restored to the countryside,” said George Gibbs, a retired forester who contributed to Louisville’s 21st Century Parks for a chestnut restoration program. “I may not live that long, but I’d like to see it started.”
‘Redwood of the east’
Once called the “redwood of the east,” American chestnuts grew over 200 million acres, from Maine to Mississippi, most prolifically in the Appalachian Mountains. In the Louisville area, they were found in the Knobs region, from Southern Indiana to Fort Knox.
They averaged 5 feet in diameter, towered more than 100 feet tall and could live up to 400 years. Foresters called the American chestnut a “cradle to grave” species, because its strong, light wood was used for everything from cribs to caskets.
Each tree produced bushels of small, nutritious nuts that fed wildlife and livestock. Rural people harvested the nuts in the fall and sold them to urban markets for cooking and roasting.
“The chestnut was a huge part of the ecosystem,” said Michael Gaige, natural areas manager for 21st Century Parks.
The blight that killed them — a fungus dispersed via spores in the air, rain or animals — was imported on Asian chestnut trees and discovered in New York in 1904. It traveled about 50 miles a year and arrived in Kentucky by 1930, said Dr. Anne Myers Bobigian of Louisville, a retired physician and treasurer of the American Chestnut Foundation’s Kentucky chapter.
“Shortly thereafter everything was dead,” she said.
The blight attacks the tree’s vascular system, not its roots, so sprouts can still be found around stumps, but they rarely mature.
Orchard in Miles Park
Since 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation, which has a 150-acre research farm in Meadowview, Va., has been selectively breeding trees that have the Asian chestnuts’ blight resistance, but retain the American chestnuts’ desirable characteristics, like its timber and nuts.
It has taken six generations of intercrosses and backcrosses to create a tree that is potentially 94 percent American and blight resistant.
Offspring of these trees are the most likely to survive in forestland and were planted in Kentucky for the first time this year.
In Louisville, 30 of the advanced nuts recently were planted in Miles Park, which is off Shelbyville Road at Floyds Fork, as part of Gibbs’ endowment fund.
That Miles Park orchard will feature signs to educate visitors. There also will be other plantings in the more heavily forested parts of The Parklands of Floyds Fork, where trees will have a greater chance to propagate.
Yew Dell Gardens in Crestwood was given five of the advanced nuts and Camp Crooked Creek near Bernheim has 10.
Bobigian recently helped some volunteers plant a grove of less-advanced nuts in Jefferson Memorial Forest, to test its ground. If it proves fertile, she hopes to plant blight-resistant nuts there.
“I hope this expands in a major way across Kentucky and adjoining states so the American chestnut can be restored to its former glory,” said Gibbs, of St. Mathews. “It’s a wonderful tree and I can think of no better legacy than to see it come back.”
Kentucky’s chapter of the chestnut foundation also is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-forest tracts of private lands. Members helped plant chestnuts this spring in reclaimed strip mines in Eastern Kentucky.
Bobigian, who lives in Audubon Park, is still wary of looming challenges.
American chestnuts are susceptible to other deadly pathogens, like ink disease, a soil-borne plant fungus. Chestnuts thrive in rich, slightly acidic, well-drained soils, found spottily in this region.
“Growing chestnuts like this isn’t something anyone ever had to do,” Bobigian said. “And basically, we don’t know exactly how to do it.”
Since 2001, volunteers have planted 10 breeding orchards across the state from the progeny of Kentucky’s 20 surviving pure American chestnut trees and the blight-resistant variety from the Virginia research farm. These orchards are meant to perpetuate the state’s genetic stock and provide valuable research information.
Bobigian has three orchards in the region, the most successful at Meade’s Landing in Oldham County. There, about 190 chestnut trees, most from Kentucky stock, have grown to 6 feet tall. They are blooming now and she expects nuts this fall for the first time. She said she can almost taste them.
“My goal is in five years to have chestnuts in my Thanksgiving stuffing.”
Reporter Niki King can be reached at (502) 582-4248.