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Blight-resistant American chestnut trees could soon be returning to forests across Virginia

A project to reintroduce American chestnuts in Laurel Creek Unit on the Jefferson National Forest, planted in 2012. Photo taken fall of 2021.
The American Chestnut Foundation
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A project to reintroduce American chestnuts in Laurel Creek Unit on the Jefferson National Forest, planted in 2012. Photo taken fall of 2021.

American chestnuts once flourished throughout Virginia, but were virtually wiped out in the early 1900s by a blight. Scientists have been working over 100 years to bring them back.

Researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) recently figured out how to edit a gene from a wheat plant into the genome of an American chestnut. The new variety is called Darling-58, and it’s not a hybrid with a Chinese chestnut. It’s an American chestnut with a slight variation in its genes.

The United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are now reviewing whether to allow the genetically modified chestnut to be released into the forests. They could make a decision as early as next May, said Sara Fern Fitzsimmons, a conservation officer with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF).

“They are looking to see, is it safe? Is it going to spread out of control,” Fitzsimmons said. “Is it going to negatively affect any other species, especially other endangered species?

Fitzsimmons said researchers won’t patent the new variety of chestnut because they want to see the trees get planted, and the forests restored, as quickly as possible.

20211023_154956.jpg
The American Chestnut Foundation
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A project to reintroduce American chestnuts in Laurel Creek Unit on the Jefferson National Forest, planted in 2012. Photo taken fall of 2021.

Increasing fires out west, carbon sequestration efforts, and mine reclamation work are driving a demand to produce more saplings for reforestation efforts across the United States.

“There’s a burgeoning need and interest in resurrecting some of this work because now we’re seeing the need. We’re gonna need a lot more nursery stock to meet the kinds of planting and reforestation goals that people set for the future.”

This comes after years of defunding for many state-run nurseries. In West Virginia, the Clements State Tree Nursery in Mason County closed down abruptly in 2021, after decades of research into chestnut trees and a longstanding collaboration with TACF. “They were a great partner,” said Fitzsimmons, who notes that the loss of any partnership now is a setback at a time when more infrastructure to grow saplings is needed.

If federal regulators approve Darling-58, the blight resistant seeds and saplings would likely first go to nurseries in New York, D.C., Pennsylvania and Virginia. The trees could be available for residents to plant in the next few years.

Fitzsimmons said researchers at Virginia Tech are doing genetic research to help ensure that the trees they plant will have enough diversity to flourish.

An open bur of an American chestnut
The American Chestnut Foundation
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An open bur of an American chestnut

Chestnuts are typically harvested in November and December. “I prefer them raw,” said Fitzsimmons, who recommends storing them for two-three weeks. “If you let them ripen up in the refrigerator, the starches will turn into sugars and they’ll get really sweet. And that’s why lots of people use them in stuffing by like Thanksgiving or Christmas, because they get really, really sweet after they’ve been stored for a little while.”

Updated: November 11, 2022 at 4:14 PM EST
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.

Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.