KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee researchers are setting out hundreds of American chestnut seedlings this month as part of a program designed to return the blight-ravaged tree to Eastern forests.
Bundles of six-foot seedlings have been shipped to sites in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, where the UT Agricultural Experiment Station is cooperating with other forestry groups on research into growing the tree, said Dr. Scott Schlarbaum, who head’s UT’s Tree Improvement Program.
“When the chestnut died out in this area, there wasn’t a lot of replanting of forests going on,” Schlarbaum said. “We don’t know a lot about planting chestnut back into the forest.”
Schlarbaum said the American chestnut was one of the most important trees in Eastern forestry before a fungus accidentally imported from Asia killed all the country’s mature trees in the 1920s and 1930s. Chestnut root systems continue to send up sprouts in some places, but blight kills the trees before they can mature.
The UT project is studying forest management practices that will be useful when a blight-resistant strain of American chestnut is bred, Schlarbaum said. UT is cooperating with the American Chestnut Foundation and other groups trying to develop a disease-resistant tree.
The UT study uses genetically-related seedlings germinated from nuts of mother trees. Schlarbaum and colleagues are looking for genetic traits that make some families more blight-resistant than others.
Young trees from the UT study are being set out at Berea College and the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky and at a Pennsylvania site.
“We’ll observe these saplings for a number of years. Some of them will die from blight, but some will get up to eight inches in diameter,” he said. “By that time, we’ll understand what it takes in terms of management practices to restore American chestnuts.”
Schlarbaum has been director of the Tree Improvement Program since 1984.