Once one of the most common and important tree species in the eastern United States, the American chestnut tree flourished from Maine to Mississippi, including much of Kentucky.
The tree was highly valued for wood products and, of course, the chestnut itself as a food source. But a fungus introduced in the early 20th century all but wiped out the species by the middle of the century.
Now, Eastern Kentucky University, in collaboration with the Kentucky chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, is taking a leading role in restoring the American chestnut to its past glory. Volunteers will gather near the University’s Taylor Fork Ecological Area on Friday, April 22 (Earth Day), to plant approximately 1,200 chestnut saplings, which were supplied by the Foundation. The public is welcome to participate in the “work day” (10 a.m.-5 p.m.) and attend a 1:30 p.m. dedication ceremony, which will feature guest speaker Rex B. Mann, a retired USDA Forest Service official now serving as a private forestry consultant focused on restoring the American chestnut species. EKU Facilities Services will provide snacks and drinks for the day.
EKU received a $1,000 Tree Campus USA Arbor Day Mini-Award for the chestnut orchard. The University boasts one of only 254 campuses nationwide designated as a Tree Campus USA, a national program hosted by the Arbor Day Foundation and Toyota Manufacturing, At an Arbor Day ceremony last year, the University conducted a ceremonial planting of six American chestnut trees on the south side of its New Science Building.
This year’s planting of the orchard near Taylor Fork furthers the American Chestnut Foundation’s goal of restoring the tree to the forests of Eastern North America by breeding genetically diverse blight-resistant trees, evaluating various approaches to the management of chestnut pests and pathogens, and reintroducing the trees into the forest in an ecologically acceptable manner. The orchard project will assist students in researching the rate of growth, blight resistance, shade resistance and the retrieval of seeds.
“While American chestnuts were valued across their range, in the southern Appalachians the trees were particularly important,” said Dr. Jennifer Koslow, assistant professor of biological sciences. “Early settlers of southern Appalachia, including most of EKU’s service region in eastern Kentucky, were able to use the abundance of chestnuts to supplement both their diets and their incomes. The chestnuts were so abundant at one time that it was common practice to let pigs and livestock loose in the woods to fatten them up on chestnuts instead of needing to find or purchase other feed.”
The American Chestnut Foundation hopes to restore the tree to eastern woodlands, benefiting the environment, wildlife and society while creating a template for the restoration of other tree and plant species. The Foundation harvested its first potentially blight-resistant chestnuts in 2005 and is now in a phase of rigorous testing and trial, in both orchard and forest settings.
“Restoring American chestnuts is an important mission for EKU because American chestnuts were an important part of our cultural and ecological heritage in eastern Kentucky forests,” Koslow said. “It is an honor for EKU to be partnering with the American Chestnut Foundation as a site for a seed orchard. In order for us to host a seed orchard, we needed to have land formally dedicated to that purpose for 35-40 years and commit to care of the trees. Facilities Services has been amazing taking care of all the details, including the addition of irrigation lines and deer fences to protect the orchard.”
EKU students will be among the beneficiaries.
“The seed orchard will provide an excellent educational opportunity for our students to learn about tree care, ecology, plant pathogens and the historical importance of the American chestnut,” Koslow said. “It will also provide them with an opportunity to contribute to an ambitious restoration program. After the initial planting, the orchard will be closed to the public while the trees get established, but there will be educational signage, and we will be having events in the future that would allow the public to interact with the trees themselves.”
Other partners in the chestnut initiative include EKU Office of Sustainability, the EKU Department of Biological Sciences, the EKU Department of Agriculture, the EKU Wildlife Management Program, the University’s Tree Advisory Committee, Kentucky Division of Forestry, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Also, yearly donations of burr oak and Kentucky coffee trees from McDonald’s of Richmond-TDS helped the University qualify for Tree Campus USA status.
During the dedication ceremony, the University will receive its five-year recognition from Tree Campus USA and the Kentucky Division of Forestry.
To reach the orchard site, volunteers and ceremony attendees should board a shuttle bus at either the Whitlock Building or Perkins Building. Volunteers are urged to wear closed-toe shoes, long pants and rain gear. For more information, contact Randy Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 859-622-2966.
Accommodations for those with disabilities can be made by calling 859-622-8466.
In the event of rain, the work day and ceremonies will be held Friday, April 29.