Professors seek to save chestnut trees


Professors at the University are teaming up to prevent the extinction of the American chestnut tree.

“The American chestnut was one of the most common trees in the eastern forests and today, we’ve lost almost all the chestnut trees,” said Steven Handel, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources.

These trees were killed mostly from one fungus, he said.

“The fungus probably came with wooden material from China. The chestnuts in China, unlike the American chestnuts, are immune to the disease,” Handel said.

Before the disease, the American chestnut made up 20 percent of all the trees from New England to the South East, with some trees clearing 150 feet, he said.

The fungus prevents the American chestnuts from growing, Handel said.

“The fungus kills off the trees but not the actual roots. Therefore, the chutes still come up and after 10 feet, the fungus affects it again and it dies,” he said.

To help save the American chestnut tree, the University is working with Duke Farms, the American Chestnut Foundation and geneticists from Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University, Handel said.

Sarah Tremallo, a Duke Farms spokeswoman, said the farm is always open to working with research partners who are looking to support environmental stewardship.

While Bradley Hillman, professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, is working to solve the problem of the fungal virus that is taking hold of the American chestnut tree, Handel works with hybrid nuts to create a chestnut tree resistant to disease, he said.

“We take the pollen from the Chinese chestnut tree and put it on the American flower to get the offspring,” Handel said. “The ones we planted are 1/16th Chinese chestnut and 15/16th American chestnut, so they look like the American chestnut tree.”

Christina Kaunzinger, a senior ecologist for the University’s Center for Urban Restoration Ecology, said one of the biggest challenges is finding a place to plant the fungus-resistant chestnuts in the Northeast and re-introducing them in to the environmental system.

The hybrids are planted in the gaps of Duke Farms along with American chestnut trees and Chinese chestnut trees, she said, which are monitored to check for survival rate and signs of disease on the American chestnut tree and compare it to the blight resistant hybrid.

“They’re coming along well,” she said, in which there is about a 50 percent survival rate of the trees planted.

Handel said they are working on this project to restore the American chestnut because it is valuable to habitats, where many animals benefit from the chestnuts.

“Our world is changing, and the more species we have, the greater chance our native forests can survive,” he said. “If we lose an oak tree, a chestnut tree can be replaced.”

Handel’s hopes are high for the success of the hybrid’s chestnuts, he said.

“What I’ve read is that the American chestnut was delicious and better than the ones in the market now. The ones in our stores are Chinese. The hybrid should taste just like the original,” Handel said.

Students should have another reason besides taste in hoping for the hybrid’s success.

“For a student, this is an excellent illustration of modern plant science research. New Jersey is changing in many ways. Invasive insects and plants invade our state,” he said.

Michael Silvestri, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said he wishes Handel and his team the best.

“I think it’s great that we are putting our intelligence of science and technology to save the environment,” he said.

—Yashmin Patel contributed to this story.


By Elizabeth Kearns

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