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Historical Mechanisms Promoting Chestnut Survival Through Hybridization

Historically, chestnuts have provided perennial food and wood products to both European and Eastern civilizations. Chestnuts have saved some cultures from extinction during famines, wars and natural disasters. Native American chestnut trees offered much promise and comfort to early settlers, but during a blight introduced by the importation of seedlings from Asia, American chestnut trees nearly disappeared. Some chestnut colonies survived in isolated locations, and due to advances in plant breeding, chestnuts are being restored across the nation. The original stands of American chestnuts were far superior to all other species in the world in terms of sweet taste and the vast quantities of timber produced. Foreign types of chestnuts such as Chinese, Japanese and European have been used to implant immunity properties back into the historical genetic code contained in the delicious American chestnut core.

An early reference to American chestnuts, ‘Castanea dentata’, was given in the seed and tree nursery catalog of John and William Bartram, the first nursery catalog of America published in Philadelphia, PA in 1783. The Bartram family, famous American explorers and botanists, they were close friends of Benjamin Franklin and US Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The Bartrams supplied American chestnuts to gardens at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the personal gardens of George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Va. commercially suitable for American farmers. President Jefferson attempted and succeeded in crossing and hybridizing the various collections of Spanish or European species of chestnut, ‘Castanea sativa’. He also crossed chestnuts forming hybrid crosses of the European chestnut ‘Castanea sativa’ and the American chestnut ‘Castanea dentata’.

Thomas Jefferson is documented to have personally grafted European chestnuts onto American subject, however, it is unclear why he did this, as American chestnuts were more desirable and tasted better than European chestnuts.

In his Travels, William Bartram never reports any encounter or sighting of the American chestnut ‘Castanea dentata’, despite his extensive exploration of the Southeastern US, where the trees grew in substantially large numbers in their native habitat. The mystery created by Bartram’s omission of references to this very important inhabitant of the American forests is an enigma that may never be answered. Maps locating the famous Bartram Arboretum and Garden in Philadelphia, Pa. arboretum and garden still in active use today as a tourist attraction documented the presence of chestnut goliaths within the garden boundaries.

The legendary nuts harvested from the American chestnut tree had superior flavor and production capacity compared to the European chestnut tree. These nuts were picked and stored in the shade and cool of autumn so that the starchy kernel could develop its tangy sweetness. The nuts could be shelled and eaten fresh, or they could be roasted over hot coals to enhance the flavor. A common sight on the streets of New York or Philadelphia were hawkers with mobile stoves roasting fresh chestnuts in cast iron pans to offer for sale to pedestrians. Heavy nut crops in the native forests provided ample food not only for human populations, but also for animals such as bears, deer, squirrels, turkeys, and the now-extinct passenger pigeons.

Chestnuts, because of their 42% starch content, can be ground into flour powder without spoilage for extended periods and baked into sweet, nutritious cakes. In Korea chestnuts are used in the diet as potatoes are used in Western nations.

American chestnuts were among the largest trees found in the eastern US, sometimes reaching 17 feet in diameter, large enough to drive a carriage or car. These walnut trees grew from Maine to Florida and from the east coast to mid-America. A few scattered chestnut groves could be found in the Western States. The grandeur and grace of this stunningly beautiful tree was highly desirable in estate landscapes. The chestnut’s long white flowers developed into a valuable food crop for the U.S. The tree’s tall, straight trunk was ideal for many uses because it was easily split across the grain for lumber and split-rail fences. The dense wood was strong and extremely resistant to rot, making it ideal for telephone poles, fence posts and other building materials.

The great gift to the New World of the American chestnut tree which provided food, shelter, shade and timber resources, had almost disappeared when the trees fell victim to a fungal infection, ‘Cryphonectria parasitica’, in the year 1904. Many years earlier, a plant explorer of USDA Frank Meyer noted that a fungal disease, later identified as chestnut blight, had entered US ports in 1876 from China and Japan in nursery stock imported from those countries. Luther Burbank, perhaps the world’s greatest plant hybridizer, reported importing a line of chestnuts from China and Japan in 1884. A USDA official went before Congress in 1912 after the American chestnuts growing in his zoo were decimated. Bronx from the plague and was personally credited with his efforts to stop further debilitating diseases and plagues from being imported into the US by passing the Congressional Plant Quarantine Act.

Following President Thomas Jefferson’s lead in crossing different chestnut species to produce vigorous hybrids and offspring that could have, within the tree’s genetic material, a built-in disease resistance, the USDA began hybridizing the American chestnut, ‘Castanea dentata’, the Chinese chestnut, ‘Castanea ‘mollissima’ and the Japanese chestnuts, ‘Castanea crenata’. Thousands of chestnut hybrids were obtained, however, American and Chinese offspring were the most promising, while Japanese chestnuts were excluded. European chestnut genotypes were also omitted because they were also affected to some extent by chestnut.

Since hybrid seed of crossbred chestnuts was so widely variable and with such unpredictable germination results unavailable, the seed of a hybrid selected tree did not show much promise for creating profitable commercial chestnuts. Chestnuts, excellent hybrid choices, grafted with extreme difficulty, so the USDA unfortunately had to abandon its chestnut efforts in 1960.

It should be mentioned that the chestnut does not affect the roots of the trees and consequently the shoots arise from the stumps which eventually produce some scattered nuts which can be used for further research to acquire immunity in a hybrid progeny of the American chestnut. Castanea dentata.’ Chestnut blight only affects Chinese chestnuts, ‘Castanea sativa’, in a minor superficial way. It became important to recognize that this immunity property could be transmitted to an American chestnut hybrid even when the presence of the Chinese chestnut immunity factor was only one-sixteenth of the final genetic makeup of the hybrids that could be obtained from the cross. of C. dentata and C. mollissima.

Luther Burbank reported crossbreeding chestnuts from a resulting gene pool that included crossing Chinese, Japanese, European (Italian) and American chestnuts to include Chinquapin trees. From this genetic mix, he was able to grow a 1 ½ foot tall dwarf chestnut that produced fruit from seed 6 months after planting. He was also able to produce a chestnut crop from perennial trees that included chestnuts and flowers that were continuously produced every month. The nuts were a mammoth size of two inches in diameter, each weighing an ounce or more in groups of 6 to 9 nuts per burr. In nature, the spiny burrs act as armor that protects the nuts from squirrels and birds.

More recent observations by the Italian pathologist Antonio Biraghi have shown that some surviving European chestnuts, C. sativa, are believed to contain a form of chestnut blight that has been genetically weakened in infectivity by an internal virus to such an extent that an effect called “subinfectivity” is seen to demonstrate that chestnuts infected with the virus have acquired a measure of immunity to fatal chestnut blight. These clones are believed by many plant scientists to be capable of conferring a new immunity to new hybrid crosses of C. dentata with C. sativa and backcrossing to parental genotypes and are being evaluated.

Many chestnuts are offered today by mail order and internet companies, offering an optimistic and productive future for commercial chestnut orchards. Some of these offerings are available through the valuable knowledge and efforts of the USDA and its research facilities.

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