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A Chestnut Tree Lives On

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

A large American chestnut tree meets its end. But not before a garden editor turned midwife helps birth a new generation.

 This large American chestnut is at the end of its life.
 Spiny burrs enclose nuts.

"It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little — do what you can." — Sydney Smith

An old friend of mine recently died. I'm not sure how old it was — it was a chestnut tree, and chestnut trees grow big fast — but I'd guess it was near Social Security age.

I used to visit the tree every fall and kick the spiny burrs around until I found a few of the tasty nuts hiding in the leaf litter. Morning was the best time to harvest, especially if rain had knocked more burrs to the ground during the night. Wait till afternoon and the squirrels had already beaten you to the bounty.

 Juvenile chestnut and oak seedlings grow well in pots.

American chestnuts once were the predominant trees along the Appalachian Trail. They grew so large, they were called "the redwoods of the East." The rot-resistant wood was favored for construction and furniture, and the nuts were a staple of human and animal diets.

An imported disease wiped out the native chestnut population in the early 20th century, and mature specimens now are seldom seen. My friend grew up outside the species' native range, which probably helped it escape the blight. But the tree may have developed some natural resistance to the disease. That's why I wanted to propagate the nuts.

 A newly planted chestnut seedling will grow into a good-size tree within five years.

For years I've grown chestnuts in pots, above, along with oaks and hickories. I've given some to friends, and planted others in public spaces around Iowa such as the Whiterock Nature Conservancy in Coon Rapids and the Iowa Arboretum in Madrid.

  This young chestnut tree didn't take long to reach this stage.

What happens when you liberate an American chestnut from its container? It GROWS. And fast! A small seedling can turn into a good-size tree, in just five years. The "redwood of the East" didn't earn that nickname for nothing.

  Ample sunlight in a wooded area helped this tall chestnut spring up quickly.

Put it in a forested location where it's competing with other vegetation and American chestnut grows at an even faster clip. Note the height of the tree to the right, which topped 18 feet in five years after a large black cherry tree was removed. The chestnut immediately filled the gap — which is how it got to be the predominant forest tree in the East in the first place!

 Brenton Arboretum horticulture director Andy Schmitz and I  plant a seedling.

And my quest continues. On Halloween I planted two chestnuts at the Brenton Arboretum in Dallas Center, Iowa, with the arboretum's horticulture director, Andy Schmitz. Will my efforts have any lasting impact? Who knows? But as the quote says, I'm doing what I can.

For me that also means supporting the research of the American Chestnut Foundation, which is introducing potentially blight-resistant chestnut hybrids that are 15/16th American. If successful, the foundation will expand its breeding to include parent trees from different regions. That's where my Iowa-raised chestnuts may come in handy.

It's amazing how much we can accomplish when we all "do what we can."