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Unity College continues ‘world-class’ chestnut tree restoration project

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

UNITY, Maine —  Students in the Conservation Biology program at Unity College will conduct a large planting of chestnut seeds as part of an ongoing restoration experiment this week.

It’s the latest phase in a long-term partnership Unity College forged with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) in spring 2015 to begin large-scale restoration of the important American chestnut tree.

Planting will take place at the College’s McKay Farm & Research Station from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. and 12:30 to 1:45 p.m., Tuesday, March 7.

The American chestnut is classified as a tree of special concern in Maine because of the devastating effects of a blight accidentally imported to the East Coast more than 100 years ago.

In June 2016, Unity College faculty and students helped plant 1300 pure American chestnut (Castanea dentata), Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), and hybrid seedlings at various locations around central Maine. The project is exploring the interaction between disease resistance and cold tolerance of trees from different genetic lines.

This newest experimental planting is part of a region-wide effort to streamline screening for breeding disease resistant trees. According to Unity College Associate Professor of Conservation Biology Dr. Matthew Chatfield “if successful, this new Small Stem Assay procedure will revolutionize the way chestnut projects are carried out by all 16 state chapters of The American Chestnut Foundation.”

Unity College students studying Conservation Biology will sow about 1000 chestnut seeds in the greenhouses at McKay Farm this month and the study will be completed this summer by staff from The American Chestnut Foundation, Unity College faculty and students, interns and volunteers.

Dr. Brian Roth, who is leading the science effort with the Maine Chapter of the TACF, said the study “will greatly speed up the selection process whereby disease resistant seedlings can be efficiently distinguished from those susceptible to the blight an early stage of growth.”

Unity College is no stranger to the American chestnut tree. Officials at America’s Environmental College have held ceremonial tree plantings of potentially blight resistant chestnut trees for the past two Earth Days. There are plans in place to continue the tradition on April 22nd of this year.

“This is Unity College education in action,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, “where highly qualified faculty partner with organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation to bring meaningful, field-based research to undergraduate students. The result is not just the teaching and learning of conservation knowledge and ethics but, also, results: the actual restoration of a historic and biologically significant American tree species.”

In the year 1900, there were more than 4 billion American chestnut trees from Maine to Alabama, approximately one of every four trees in the Appalachian Mountains.

The American chestnut became functionally extinct at the beginning of 20th century when chestnut blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was accidentally introduced into America. The fungus attacks wounds in the bark of a tree, forms cankers, and eventually girdles the tree, killing all but the roots.

The American chestnut can grow more than 100 feet tall with a diameter of as much as 14 feet. They have canoe-shaped leaves with small hooks along the edges, and they bloom in July, producing so many white catkins that a tree might look like it is covered with snow. In the fall, they produce very prickly round burrs, each of which contains three edible chestnut-colored seeds. European and Asian chestnut trees produce larger nuts that lack the sweetness of the American variety.

Since 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation has been working to restore this iconic species for many reasons, including:

  • American chestnuts produce a sweet, highly nutritious, gluten-free food;
  • American chestnuts are an important and reliable source of food for deer, bears, turkeys, birds, and squirrels;
  • American chestnuts are late flowering and produce abundant nut crops because they avoid late frosts;
  • American chestnut wood is highly rot-resistant wood with a straight grain that resembles oak but weighs far less;
  • For a hardwood species, the trees grow rapidly in the right conditions;
  • American chestnuts have proven valuable in reclamation of areas devastated by coal strip mining.

“It was called the cradle-to-grave wood,” Glen Rea, the northern breeding coordinator for the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, told the Bangor Daily News. “Cradles, tables, beds, caskets, all were made of chestnut.”

In 2015, University of Maine researchers found the tallest American chestnut in North America in a forest owned by the University of Maine Foundation in Lovell, near the New Hampshire border. The discovery of the 115-foot tall tree was “thrilling to the people who are trying to bring back the species,” Rea said.

The American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit group based in North Carolina, wants to breed blight resistance from the Chinese chestnut tree into the American chestnut, while keeping the American tree’s characteristics.

Maine volunteers joined forces with the national group in 1999 and have planted 27,000 blight-resistant hybrid chestnut trees in seed orchards around the state. In the next few years, they plan to plant 27,000 more, Rea told the Bangor Daily News. The seed orchards will be located in Searsport, Stetson, Phippsburg, Winthrop, Lovell, Unity, and Morrill, Rea said.

“We’re proud to be able to take part in the renewal of a beautiful tree indigenous to New England, right here on our campus in Unity,” Chatfield said.

The American Chestnut Foundation is a nonprofit conservation organization working to restore the American chestnut species to its native range, the eastern woodlands of the U.S. For more information about TACF, call Ruth Goodridge at (828) 281-0047; email ruth.goodridge@acf.org; or go online www.acf.org or www.facebook.com/americanchestnut.

About Unity College

The first institution of higher education in the nation to divest from fossil fuel investments, Unity College is changing the face of higher education (video). Sustainability science lies at the heart of its educational mission, offering 16 environmentally focused undergraduate majors on campus and an M.S. in Professional Science degree online. For more information, visit unity.edu.

Bob Mentzinger, (207) 509-7292
Associate Director, Media Relations, Unity College
bmentzinger@unity.edu