Backcross Chestnut Orchard at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC
By Doug Gillis, Carolinas Chapter President
In April of 2021, former TACF Regional Science Coordinator Paul Sisco and a volunteer crew participated in a workday at the backcross chestnut orchard located at Lioncrest, Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC. The ground where the trees are planted is known to contain Phytophthora cinnamomi, a root rot pathogen lethal to American chestnuts trees.
Volunteers mowed the grass in the orchard, fertilized the trees, and did necessary pruning of dead wood. The orchard is planted with trees bred for chestnut blight resistance, though the degree of each tree’s tolerance to root rot is not known. Wire cages protect the trees from deer browsing.
Some of the trees are third backcross American type chestnut planted in 2013 and 2015 under the direction of Regional Science Coordinator, Tom Saielli. The smaller trees are what Paul Sisco calls “Better B1s.” They are a cross of various F1 (half American and half Chinese) trees and B3F2 (third backcross, second intercross) trees selected for blight resistance. The smaller, Better B1 trees come from the Carolinas Chapter seed orchard. These trees were planted the day Biltmore Estate temporarily closed in March 2020, in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions. Tom LaMuraglia, the cooperator at Biltmore Estate, managed to plant the younger trees in the ground just before the pandemic hit.
None of the trees in the orchard were pre-screened for Phytophthora resistance. Many of the trees died after planting and some continue to survive. The trees struggle with chestnut blight and some have lost their central leader, but we are hopeful that others will show signs of resistance to both the blight and root rot. This orchard, like many others in TACF’s portfolio, represents a long-term project in the quest for chestnut trees that can withstand pests and pathogens.
Biltmore Estate family members, the Cecils and the Pickerings, have been supportive of TACF’s mission for years. Earlier this year, the family held a memorial tree planting in Biltmore Park Town Square in honor of the late George H.V. Cecil. All six of his children gathered on a blustery March day to plant one of TACF’s hybrid American chestnuts to commemorate Mr. Cecil’s love of trees and forest environmental conservation.