|A chestnut burr at breeding farm (American Chestnut Foundation)|
It may be fitting that the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, the man remembered for rising from humble beginnings to great heights, will be the planting ground for 20 saplings that are part of a broad effort to bring the American chestnut back to its former glory.
Volunteers at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Hodgenville, Ky., on Saturday will plant year-old American chestnuts in the park’s picnic area.
Officials hope the young chestnuts, part of the American Chestnut Foundation’s breeding and testing program, will grow to be resistant to the blight that wiped out hundreds of millions of their ancestors early in the 20th century.
This will be the second such planting at the site in the past seven years.
|Symbolic birthplace cabin in Kentucky (NPS)|
Several buildings there are made of chestnut, as is at least part of the “Symbolic Cabin” that represents the tiny abode where the future 16th president and commander in chief was born to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln in 1809.
During the Civil War, chestnuts made up about one in four hardwoods in the Appalachian region that stretches from Maine to Alabama.
"Families in rural America, including the Lincoln family, once depended heavily upon the American chestnut for both food and shelter. The trees grew straight and tall and were rot-resistant, making the wood desirable for construction. The small nuts were sweet and fed entire families, as well as livestock and many species of wildlife," says park Superintendent Bill Justice.
Straight-grained chestnut timber was ideal for furniture, telephone poles, railroad ties and plywood. Lighter than oak, chestnut logs were used for river rafts.
But the blight’s fungus and another malady, root rot, conspired against the fast-growing American chestnut.
Stacy Humphreys, chief of interpretation and resource management at the federal site, says about 200,000 people come annually to Sinking Spring Farm, the birthplace, and Knob Creek, where the family moved when Lincoln was about 2. They moved to Indiana when he was 7.
Many visitors are surprised the actual birth cabin no longer exists. That was confirmed when a test in 2004 showed the structure placed in a stone memorial hall was actually from the 1840s. “We have to disappoint a lot of people.”
Still, visitors, through a film and exhibits, gain insight into the early days of Lincoln, who later became famous as the “Rail Splitter” by splitting wood for rail fences.
Humphreys said that the planting and mulching will begin at about 10 a.m. Saturday. Wire cages will be placed around the 2- to 3-feet-tall saplings (above) “so the deer don’t eat them. We have a very robust deer population.”
The blight-resistant trees, known as Restoration Chestnuts 1.0, aren’t guaranteed to not become diseased, but continued breeding and testing will increase the variety’s chances in the coming years.
A study last spring on Restoration 1.0 found 16% are highly resistant and 50% moderately resistant, says Mila Kirkland, director of communications for the American Chestnut Foundation, based in Asheville, N.C.
|Giant chestnuts in the Great Smoky Mountains (ACF)|
“Now and the coming years we are going to hone in on that 16 percent and continue to breed with those trees,” she says.
The foundation’s effort involves crossing the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to the devastating blight. Many of the resulting trees are grown at the organization’s farms in Meadowview, Va.
The foundation is doing “test” plantings all over the country. Patience is required because the blight can take a while to develop, says Kirkland, and the Restoration 1.0 program only began in 2005.
After an American and Chinese chestnut are crossed, the resulting tree is crossed back with the American, resulting eventually in a product that is 15/16th American.
The Chinese chestnut is shorter, with spreading branches. “The wood is not the beautiful chestnut colored wood of our native trees. It is much more inferior as a forest tree because it is an orchard tree,” says Kirkland.
|Restoration 1.0 seeds (ACF)|
While the American chestnut can be found in commercial nurseries, the hybrids developed by the foundation and other groups are the best chance to develop characteristics that will help the tree rebound in the coming generations.
The native range is in the Appalachians. “They prefer slopes and well-drained soils. They don’t like water and soggy bottom land,” says Kirkland.
She, too, emphasizes the importance of the tree to man and wildlife during the mid-19th century. “They were definitely prevalent at Lincoln birthplace.” Animals and humans prized the nut as a food source.
“(Settlers) would take these wagons full of chestnuts into cities and sell them as a cash crop or trade for things they needed.”
The American chestnut isn’t the only tree that has been ravaged by disease. A canker devastated the butternut, a hardwood tree. During the Civil War, the color of Confederate uniforms was created using butternut husks as a source of dye.
The chestnut foundation’s 16 state chapters, from Alabama to Maine, do the ground work of breeding regionally adapted chestnuts. “A tree that is native to Georgia is not going to work so well in Maine, for many reasons,” says Kirkland.
Lynn Garrison, president of the Kentucky chapter, says he has high hopes for trees being planted Saturday, but acknowledges it is still part of a larger test.
“You can’t tell when it shows up,” he says of the blight. “It varies somewhat.”
He says his chapter’s goal is to cross trees that can work in all 20 eco-regions in Kentucky
|The American chestnut is a fast grower (ACF)|
“We will have trees …. that will be mostly Kentucky genotypes. We want to preserve as much genetic information as possible.”
The best hope against the blight is through the breeding program, rather than fungicides and other chemicals, says Garrison. “They tried to cut every chestnut tree and they thought it would stop migration of the blight, but it didn’t.”
“We think the answer is in developing a resistance,” he says. And while the foundation is moving forward with caution, it is hopeful about restoration.
“We think it won’t be long before we are ready to start restoring them in the forest.”
The Kentucky chapter has planted about 1,000 trees in controlled settings over the past year.
The planting at the Lincoln birthplace can help educate generations that were born long after the blight virtually wiped out the American chestnut population. The effort has both historic and ecological lessons, Garrison says.
In their heyday, chestnuts could live up to 300 years. Some reached 120 feet and they were opportunistic mainstays in the forest canopy.
Of course, there will be setbacks along the way, as some chestnuts succumb to the blight. But the breeding program will produce thousands of hardy trees that will thrive.
Kirkland says the hope is that 50 years from now, the American chestnut will be restored to the forest – “that it is a common tree people talk about, interact with and use in their daily lives.”