In 2005, we harvested our first potentially blight-resistant chestnuts. We are now in a phase of rigorous testing and trials in the forest, orchard, and research labs. The return of the American chestnut to its former native range in the Appalachian hardwood forest ecosystem is a major restoration project that requires a multi-faceted effort involving members and volunteers, scientific research, sustained funding, and most importantly, a sense of the past and a hope for the future.
The history of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) chronicles the ongoing pursuit of a fundamental goal: to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut tree via scientific research and breeding, and to restore the tree to its native forests along the eastern United States.
TACF was founded in 1983 by a group of prominent plant scientists and lay persons who recognized the severe impact the demise of the American chestnut tree imposed upon the local economy of rural communities, and upon the ecology of forests within the tree’s native range. The American chestnut tree reigned over 200 million acres of eastern woodlands from Maine to Alabama, and from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley, until succumbing to a lethal fungus infestation known as the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica), during the first half of the 20th century. An estimated four billion American chestnuts, 1/4 of the hardwood tree population, grew within this range.
In 1989 TACF established the Wagner Research Farm, a breeding station in Meadowview, Virginia, to execute the backcross breeding method developed by Philip Rutter, Dr. David French and the late Dr. Charles Burnham, three of TACF’s founding scientists. These three wrote the first important paper about the breeding program (The citation is: Burnham, C.R., Rutter, P.A., and D.W. French. 1986. Breeding blight-resistant chestnuts. Plant Breeding Reviews 4:347-397. The goal was to breed blight resistance from the Chinese chestnut tree into the American chestnut tree, while maintaining the American chestnut’s characteristics.
TACF’s breeding program began by crossing Chinese chestnut trees, which are naturally resistant to the blight, with their American cousins. The result was trees that were 50% American, 50% Chinese. These trees were then backcrossed to the American species, resulting in trees which were 75% American. The procedure was repeated to produce an American chestnut tree that retains no Chinese characteristics other than blight resistance.
Mary Belle Price donated a second research farm to the Foundation in 1995, in memory of her late husband, Glenn C. Price, a strong supporter of TACF. A third Meadowview farm was purchased in 2002, and a fourth in 2006.
Three independent reviews of TACF’s scientific mission, methods, and results were conducted in 1999, 2006, and 2018 by prominent scientists from around the world. The reviews in 1999 and 2006 contributed significantly to guiding the breeding program. With recent developments in genomic technologies and resources, and exciting progress in biotechnology, TACF recognized the need for a new review. In 2018, a panel of five senior scientists with backgrounds in tree improvement and forest genetics research relevant to TACF’s organizational goals, met for two days in Abingdon, Virginia, hosted by TACF staff. They attended presentations and field trips in the nearby Meadowview breeding and testing properties. The review panel was impressed with the work, and in-depth self-analysis and planning, presented by TACF.