ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Imagine waking up 150 years ago, opening your window and looking out onto the Southern Appalachians. Within view would be any one of the billions of American chestnut trees that once covered the landscape. Places that are now considered coal country were chestnut country.
Today, not so much. The tree is considered functionally extinct, thanks to a fungus imported in on a tree from Japan in the late 1800s. The airborne fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, flings its spores onto the American chestnut until its bark develops sickly looking blisters that soon spread throughout its body, destroying the tree’s ability to grow tall enough to reproduce.
But all hope is not lost: a new partnership between the American Chestnut Foundation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians aims to repopulate the region with the lost tree.
On April 21, the vice chief of the EBCI Alan B. Ensleyand the president and CEO of TACF Lisa Thomson signed a memorandum of understanding to create a chestnut tree orchard some 4,270 feet high in the Qualla Boundary, a territory that belongs to the EBCI and spans parts of Swain and Jackson counties, lying just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The plan is to plant the American chestnut trees, take germplasm samples, and gather any nuts that are eventually produced. The orchard will be for studying the chestnut trees, not for commercial production.
“It’s about 5,600 acres. And so there’s no development that goes on up there,” said Joey Owle, secretary of agriculture and natural resources for the EBCI.
In the mid-2000s, the ECBI created a deer pen around the land for a different project. The barrier is still up, which is “ideal” according to Owle, because it will protect the chestnuts from hungry deer and elk.
The orchard will be filled with different versions of the American chestnut tree that have some degree of disease resistance, since the fungus will likely always be an issue.
“The fungus is airborne,” said Sam Bowers, director of philanthropy and external affairs at TACF. “We will never get rid of the fungus.”
The fungus can also live in oak trees without making them sick, making it even harder to combat, she said.
Some of the saplings in the ECBI orchard will come from the version of the American chestnut tree TACF has cross bred with the Chinese chestnut tree over the past three decades. Their goal has been to imbue in the American tree the blight-resistant genes carried by the Chinese tree, while also maintaining the American tree’s genetic difference.
The other trees that will go in the orchard are already growing in the area, according to Owle. One day, members of the EBCI and TACF were out looking at the land. Suddenly, Dr. Jared Westbrook, the director of science at TACF, shouted to the group that he’d found thousands of American chestnut trees in the wild. They just couldn’t see them.
“They don’t grow big because they’re being out-competed by all the other tree species,” Owle said.
“Part of what our demonstration orchard is, is that we’ll maintain that area so there’s no competitive pressure on the American chestnuts that we’re growing,” he said.
TACF also favors using genetically modified chestnut trees, which scientists at the State University of New York have developed over decades to resist the fungus. The nonprofit also uses biocontrol methods, where they inject the blight-causing fungus with a virus developed by researchers at the University of Maryland and West Virginia University so that it can’t kill the American chestnut tree.
For now, though, “What we’re focusing on is the wild American chestnuts in our landscape, and then the naturally crossbred and backcrossed American chestnuts that (TACF) has donated to the ECBI orchard,” Owle said.
Conversations between the EBCI and the TACF have been in the works for over a decade. The two organizations didn’t quite see eye-to-eye until director emeritus of TACF, Rex Mann, approached a man he knew from childhood: Jimbo Sneed, a member of the EBCI. Sneed and Mann’s father preached together.
Mann is passionate about restoring the American chestnut tree. And given the tree’s historic significance to indigenous people, he and TACF knew any serious restoration needed to happen in partnership with the Eastern Band.
According to The Institute for American Indian Studies, the chestnut tree carries historic significant for numerous tribal nations: the Cherokee used the leaves to create cough syrup, and the nuts were a critical part of the Cherokee diet. The Mohegan used the leaves to make tea to soothe those with a cold or rheumatism. The Iroquois used the wood to help babies with chafing, and the bark to cure worms in dogs.
“We grew up eating chestnut bread,” Owle said.
“The American chestnut, its home is on tribal sovereign lands. So if we don’t engage indigenous peoples in this effort, then we have failed in truly restoring this species to where it needs to be restored,” Bowers said.
Going forward, members from the EBCI and Chestnut Foundation will meet to plot out where they’ll plant the 40 or so chestnuts the EBCI has in their nursery, the best practice for planting, and any soil tests that need to happen in advance.
The EBCI has secured funding to hire an intern who will work full time on the orchard. Next month, members of the Eastern Band will head out to TACF’s orchard in Virginia where the organization has more than 100,000 American chestnut trees. They’ll learn how to hand pollinate the chestnuts, and other technical skills critical to managing the new orchard.