DALTON, Ga. — Towering American Chestnut trees once covered 200 million acres of eastern forests in the United States, according to the American Chestnut Foundation, feeding humans and animals year-round with their tasty nuts.
But, in the early 1900s, Asian chestnut trees imported to the United States brought a fungal disease the American chestnut had no ability to resist. The chestnut blight swiftly decimated the country’s estimated 4 billion American chestnuts.
Still, an American chestnut at Dalton State College is thriving today.
This tree — like other flourishing American chestnuts — is not actually a purebred. It has been cross-bred with the blight-immune Chinese chestnut.
“It has the Chinese genes that make it blight-resistant,” explained Don Davis, a Dalton State College sociology professor and founding president of the Georgia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
“We’re proud of the tree,” he said, “and we’re proud of having it on campus.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Davis pollinated the tree for the first time. The chestnut tree pollen was shipped on ice from Rome, Ga., to ensure the Dalton State tree will produce chestnuts and, in turn, more blight-resistant trees.
The American chestnut must receive pollen from another tree to produce its chestnuts.
“Chestnut trees are genetically wired not to self-pollinate,” Dr. Davis explained.
If the pollination is successful, the tree will yield chestnuts that can be planted to grow more blight-resistant trees. It’s nearly impossible for an American Chestnut with blight to survive, since the fungus causes cankers killing everything above the diseased part of the trunk, he said.
Berry College biology professor Martin Cipollini, also with the Georgia chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, said that thousands of diseased — and diminished — American chestnuts still can be found in Eastern forests. But they hardly resemble the great chestnut trees that dominated many forests before the blight.
“Even though there’s a lot of them out there, they’re basically little shrubs,” he said.