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Chestnut trees can still grace your landscape

"Under a spreading chestnut tree, The village smithy stands."

Now there's a sight that might have been familiar to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow but would be almost impossible to see today.

You might find the village "smithy" or blacksmith, however rare a specimen he might be. However, the majestic American chestnut tree is a thing of the past, having been wiped out by a devastating blight.

Or at least, that was the common belief until a dedicated group of scientists began working to bring the renowned tree back to life. But if you love the idea of chestnut trees as part of your landscape but can't wait for all that scientific research to come to fruition, today I have a practical and much faster solution!

The American chestnut was once a common sight and well known to pioneers who used its lumber for building everything from cribs to caskets – "from cradle to grave" – including furniture, musical instruments, fencing, railroad ties and crates. The nuts themselves were used as food by pioneers and Native Americans as well as by a wide variety of wildlife.

Additionally, by 1900 more than half of the vegetable tannin, used by the leather industry for tanning, came from chestnut trees.

"Majestic" is an apt description for the American chestnut which could reach heights of 95 feet or more with a spread of 60 ft in open spaces. The American chestnut, or Castanea dentata as it is known to arborists, is a member of the Beech family.

Starting in 1904, blight began to infest and destroy the trees, and by the 1950s four billion American chestnut trees were dead and believed to be virtually extinct.

Although officially "out of business," remnants of the once-mighty tree can still be seen, with sprouts from stumps sometimes reaching a height of 20 feet before succumbing to the disease.

And it is those spindly sprouts that are fostering hope for a chestnut comeback, according to a group of dedicated scientists, arborists and volunteers at the American Chestnut Foundation. Using a plant breeding technique called back crossing, the Foundation is working to restore the tree as close as possible to its former glory.

In this case, the "Lone Ranger" riding in from out of town is the Chinese chestnut. Unlike its American cousin, the Chinese variety is highly resistant to the blight, and can survive even if infected.

Researchers are using back crossing to breed blight-resistant trees by crossing Chinese chestnuts with those stump sprouts. The offspring is then bred with another "original" American chestnut, and so on until (with luck and dedication) a hybrid emerges that is about 94% American chestnut. And yes, it's a long, painstaking process!

You can find out what the American Chestnut Foundation is doing by visiting their web site at http://www.acf.org/ and as always, I have included a direct link from my web site. Go to www.landsteward.org and look for "The Plant Man" in the menu. Find this column and simply click on the link.

Ironically, it is thought that the original blight – Endothia parasitica – was inadvertently introduced to the United States by Asian chestnut trees brought over as nursery stock.

As I said above, if you love chestnut trees but can't wait for the results of all that cross-breeding, there is a very acceptable solution. Because it is strongly disease-resistant, the Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) has become a favorite choice for both professional landscapers and homeowners.

They are ideal if you're looking for impressive shade trees, and a row of Chinese chestnuts provide an excellent and very attractive wind-break. And don't forget that you'll be able to harvest the nuts from your own trees for chestnut stuffing with the Thanksgiving turkey and roasted chestnuts all winter long!

One thing you need to bear in mind: Chinese chestnut trees are what is known as "self sterile" so it is important to plant a number of seedlings at the same time. At maturity, your Chinese chestnut trees will reach a height of around 50 feet. Although not quite as tall as their towering American cousins, this can be a benefit in 21st century landscapes that may not be quite the "wide open spaces"of a century ago. Best of all, they aren't susceptible to that terrible blight!

Drop me a quick e-mail if you want more information about Chinese chestnuts. And send me your favorite chestnut recipe, too!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send you questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] and for resources and additional information, including archived Plant Man columns, visit www.landsteward.org where you can also subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter.