Searching for the "holy grail" in American chestnut trees? Then look no further than Meadowview, VA — where a 93-acre plot may hold the future of the once ubiquitous chestnut tree. The last century has been a rough one for the majestic tree: an invasive blight wiped out close to 3.5 billion specimens between 1904 and 1950, and the chestnut has struggled to regain a foothold ever since. With the advent of a new hybrid super-chestnut tree completely resistant to the blight — the so-called "holy grail" of chestnut trees — however, things may finally be looking up for the beleaguered species.
With 120 hybrid saplings already going strong, scientists expect there to be enough "holy grail" nuts by 2010 to begin planting in test sites in natural forests and, by 2015, for there to be enough to begin replanting nationwide. This major boost to the chestnut's fortunes is credited to Fred Hebard, a researcher who has devoted 18 years of his life to hybridize the ideal specimen. After several experiments cross-breeding American chestnut varieties with blight-resistant Chinese varieties, he obtained a tree 15/16ths American (which allowed it to grow tall) with 1/16th Chinese resistance.With assistance from the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) and the U.S. Forest Service, full-scale trials are expected to start within 3 years during which thousands of the best "holy grail" nuts will be planted in Kentucky and West Virginia forests. Other chapters are hard at work breeding their own specific varieties of the chestnut to make them better suited to regional weather and soil.
Because even the "fully blight resistant" tree can contract the blight — though it is quite capable of eliminating it — groups such as the American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation are attempting to create a superior genetically engineered version of the chestnut. However, since the tree's genes have not yet been sequenced, its best hope for long-term survival likely lies in the plan adopted by Hebard, the ACF and the Forest Service to gradually replant it across the country.
"We are planting the hope, and making a commitment, that this noble hardwood will be restored to the American landscape and its vital ecological role in our nation's forests," said Dirk Kempthorne, the US Secretary of the Interior.
See also: ::"Sex Tree" and Others on the Brink of Extinction, ::Living Christmas Trees, ::The Energy Tree
Image courtesy of Ben Schueddekopf via flickr