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Chestnut tree poised for comeback

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Restoring the species to its former glory has been the life's work of Fred Hebard, whom some regard as the American chestnut tree's Johnny Appleseed. What he's growing on his research farm in Meadowview is a tree now 15/16ths American chestnut that will grow tall and true, with 1/16 Chinese chestnut resistance.

"We're starting to produce the critical generation of fully resistant chestnut, the one we intend to release into the woods," he says. "Within three to five years we hope to begin putting out large numbers of trees, maybe 10,000 of them."

Known as the "sequoia of the East," the American chestnut was once dominant in forests from Maine to Florida, a majestic giant that easily grew four feet across, 120 feet high and lived for centuries. Its nuts were an important source of food for animals and humans and its rot-resistant wood prized by timber and furniture companies.

It's taken Dr. Hebard 18 years of painstaking hybridization to get to this point of having several hundred fully blight-resistant trees. Before him, predecessor Charles Burnham began the work in 1983.

Earlier this year, about 2,000 partially blight-resistant American chestnuts were planted on reclaimed mine land. Those trees may not survive beyond about six or seven years because they are not blight resistant. Even so, the effort will enable researchers to better understand growing conditions on such land.

Trials of the fully resistant American chestnut are expected within three years, when the ACF and the US Forest Service expect to plant thousands of the best of the "holy grail" seeds in two forests – in Kentucky and West Virginia – the heart of the chestnut's domain. About that same time, members of the ACF will also begin receiving seeds for planting.

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