November 20, 2007


Return of the nut of the living dead: Nearly extinct and all but forgotten, the local American chestnut is finally seeing a revival (PAMELA CUTHBERT, November 15, 2007, Macleans)

It was at the Bronx Zoo in 1904 that the first signs of the blight in America were discovered. The disease had snuck in with cargo from Asia, where trees are immune. Forests were devastated and the nut's legacy nearly lost, surviving only in sentimental songs and pioneer-era poetry. Other varieties of the tree remain, but none produces an edible nut.

In Ontario, Niagara-on-the-Lake nut farmer Ernie Grimo, a local legend for his work in propagating native trees, recalls that it was an article about the endangered tree that inspired him to plant the species. It was the late '60s; he has since planted over 1,000 trees — each new one an improved hybrid — and over time lost most to the blight. "I've had some trees last 30 years, grow to 2½ feet across," he says. "Then suddenly they were dead." Efforts to contain the disease include, controversially, a project at Syracuse University to develop a genetically modified tree. "There's one GM tree in the ground," says Grimo. "I see that as the future."

The image of a lone, experimental tree is a long way from stories of the wild chestnut as a source of pennies from heaven. But it's just the latest step taken by the Canadian Chestnut Council and its U.S. counterpart to find a blight-resistant stock through cross-breeding with the Asian variety, known as an orchard chestnut. The plants are different — the Asian is more like a bush — and scientists are hoping to produce a lofty tree close to the original American. The fruit, fortunately, is comparable, says Grimo. "I wouldn't even know how to tell the difference between a hybrid and a North American chestnut."

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2007 7:10 AM
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