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The immortal chestnut

Just about the time Farrar Pond was filling, a disease was discovered among American chestnut trees in Long Island. Within Ed Farrar’s lifetime, Castanea dentata, the dominant tree in many eastern forests, was all but extinct. An estimated four billion chestnut trees were lost, and with them a staple food, valued lumber and shade tree that inspired memorable poetry.

A handful of specimens—not even a thousandth of what stood in our great-grandparents’ time—survive in the wild: not (as with elms resistant to their own blight) due to some happy accident of genetics, and therefore suitable for rebreeding. They are, rather, scattered in places remote enough that they simply have not yet been infected.

An active national program, represented in Lincoln at the Umbrello Farm, is breeding in blight-resistant Chinese-American crosses. The hope is that a 15/16ths native will prove hardy while maintaining nearly the American phenotype. Results due in soon…

Meanwhile, the roots system of our native species is fairly resistant to the blight. So an infected tree will sometimes survive as a natural coppice: after a few or a few dozen years’ growth (typically not quite to 6″ girth), the trunk will become diseased and die, leaving a living “stool” at the root crown. Strolling the woods here, one often finds a mixed clump of weathered deadwood, dying trunks, and new shoots to keep the process going. It is a fine metaphor for the persistence of life in difficult circumstances.

An abundant harvest

An abundant harvest

Where conditions are favorable, these barely mature trees will set seed before succumbing. Proof that viable nuts can be produced is all around the pond, in the form of seedling and sapling chestnut trees on new, small roots. And because their spiky defenses are effective against predators, one can often find burrs singly or in clusters ripening on the tree

Castanea dentata

Almost ripe

or lying all about its base. Perhaps one day a naturally immune nut will appear; in just a few thousand years, it may again be possible for a squirrel to travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever leaving the branches of the native chestnut.

(Click here for the sequel.)