Rutgers researchers nurture young trees in hopes of reviving American chestnut

Chestnut tree saplings growing at Duke Farms in Somerset County.(Christina Kaunzinger)

Chestnut tree saplings growing at Duke Farms in Somerset County.(Christina Kaunzinger)

As Arbor Day is observed Friday, Rutgers University researchers are making efforts to bring back a species of tree that used to be among the tallest along the Eastern Seaboard.

American chestnuts made up about a quarter of Northeast forests until a fungus from trees imported from Asia in the late 19th century wiped them out, said Christina Kaunzinger, a senior ecologist at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

“They provided a dependable source of nuts for the wildlife of the forest and for people as well,” she said. “The trees themselves produced rot-resistant wood that was used for a lot of timber applications.”

Experimental hybrid American chestnut trees cross-bred with blight-resistant Asian varieties were planted by Rutgers researchers in Somerset County six years ago; so far, they’re thriving.

Meanwhile, researchers in New York are taking a different approach. They’ve genetically engineered chestnut saplings immune to the fungus.

Rutgers plant biology professor Brad Hillman hopes restoration attempts will succeed.

“It would be terrific to see some of the same types of landscapes as in the 1800s and 1700s. It was an important part of the forestry system at the time for a good reason,” Hillman said. “People loved the tree.”

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