A Lesson from the American Chestnut

December 6, 2010 at 1:00 am 11 comments

There’s a common misconception that the American chestnut is extinct. That’s not the case. The large trees may have been decimated by the blight, but you can see plenty of little trees in the Appalachians. Alas, those small trees will eventually succumb to the blight as well before they can reach the large sizes of yesteryear.

But here’s the thing about the American chestnut. It’s incredibly optimistic.  The American chestnut is not afraid to try again. The blight will take its the branches. The blight will take its trunk, but when the tree “dies”, the roots send up another shoot to give life another whirl. It’s almost as if the tree shrugs and thinks, “Well, that sucked.” and then moves on.

Prickly Pear - Blight and New Growth
Chestnuts Aren’t Afraid to Try Again – With the larger trunk blighted, new shoots give it another go.

The weeks following our wedding was an exciting time in the chestnut arena. We got to watch as our seeds germinated. I was amazed at how from the get-go the tiniest baby leaf already looked like an American chestnut. It had itty bitty curved teeth!

Baby American Chestnut!
Baby D4-28-30, 16 days After Planting – Aww… It’s Baby Leaves Already Have Teeth!!!

We slowly exposed our baby trees to full sun and full wind. We watched them peek out of the top of their pots and continue to grow. I remember how giddy I was when I realized I could clearly make out the chestnuts when we drove down Dawson Street before we reached our road! In June, we celebrated one of the chestnuts reaching 12″ tall.

Then disaster.

Leaving for a trip, I gave the trees extra water. It turned out to be an unnecessary gesture. It rained the whole time we were gone. Worse– the holes in the bottom of our pots were obstructed so all that water queued up. This was not good– American chestnuts are sensitive to overwatering. When we returned home, our formerly happy chestnuts were far from happy. And just like that, they died.

I felt… horrible! The American Chestnut Foundation had put so much work and research into those nuts and I turned around and killed them.  I literally lost sleep over it, a fact I couldn’t hide from my mother thanks to Mark Zuckerberg (“Why were you on Facebook at 4 AM?!?”).

After a few days, I realized there was only one thing I could do to feel better. I needed to confess! I called up The American Chestnut Foundation and apologized to the poor employee who happened to answer the phone. She had a scientist call me back to gather up some data about my potting mix, my fertilizer and pot sizes. All I wanted from the conversation was a means to appease my guilt. I ended up with a lot more. At the end of our phone call, the scientist surprised me, an established tree killer, by offering me more seed.

And here’s another confession. I’m not as brave as the American chestnuts in the Appalachians. I didn’t want to try again.  I was timid and scared and had to be talked into it! Luckily, I gave in and in mid-June Ryan and I received another package marked “Refrigerate Upon Opening”

Take II
Our second wave of chestnuts aren’t from the “Restoration generation” (B3F3). They are still 15/16 American, but are members of the earlier B2F3 generation.

Pots
Ryan and I didn’t have enough pots to accomodate all of our newcomers, so we bought cheapy biodegradable peat moss pots to get some of the seedlings started. They were shorter than the recommended size, but they did have a surprise side benefit. Those pots dried out super fast, helping me avoid the overwatering mistake from my past. Later in the summer we invested in real pots for all the seedlings! This time, we verified each and every hole in the bottom and in a couple of cases, poked extra holes. : )

On the surface, it looked like the small peat moss pots did the trick, but I will note that all of our tallest seedlings were ones that were planted in the bigger pots from Day One.

American Chestnuts - Take II - July 8th
The Temporary Homes

Germination Stats
With the help of Jacal, we planted 48 nuts. Some of them had crazy long radicals. We cut the radical down to 1/2″ for 11 of the nuts. The remaining seed we left the radicals completely in tact. Two nuts were moldy and didn’t have radicals. One nut’s radical broke. Out of those 48 nuts, we had 45 germinate. Yup– the moldy nuts and the one with the broken radical were the ones that did not make an appearence.

American Chestnuts - Jacal Plants
Jacal Planting Seed

Potting Mixture
Our soil mixture was the recommended 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 perlite and 1/3 vermiculite. Jacal helped me mix it up.

American Chestnuts - Jacal Mixes Dirt
Jacal Prepares our Soiless Potting Mix

Germination Time
Germination was substantially faster this time. In March, it took our seeds roughly 13 days to poke up out of the soil. The June wave, took just 4 days before baby chestnuts made their above soil debut.

Fertilizer
Chestnuts like slightly acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 to 6.5. For fertilization, I used MiracleGro for Azaleas, Camellia, Rhododendron (it’s geared for “All Acid-Loving Plants”). It was recommended that I fertilize them every other week. Once the hurricanes and tropical storms started coming our way and the plants were getting watered frequently from nature, they were only fertilized once a month (the fertilizer was mixed in water and I was fearful of overwatering).

Pest Control (Or lack thereof)
I did not use any kind of pesticide this summer, but it probably would have been welcomed by the chestnuts. A couple of them were deemed tasty by insects and I did find two cankerworm squatters.

American Chestnuts - Take II - July 15 (7)
A Baby Chestnut with a Partially Devoured Leaf

Size
Of the twenty-two chestnuts I kept here in Elizabeth City, I did have three casualties. Of the survivors, some have done better than others. My tallest right now was planted on June 17, 2010 and on November 29th, it was 29″ tall.

American Chestnuts - Take II - September 9
Jimmie with Chestnuts – September 9th

Planting Date Size on 11/29/2010
June 17, 2010* 24″
June 17, 2010* 29″
June 17, 2010* 15″
June 17, 2010* 11″
June 17, 2010* 24″
June 17, 2010* 16″
June 18, 2010 9″
June 18, 2010 10″
June 18, 2010 6″
June 18, 2010 12″
June 18, 2010 7″
June 18, 2010 12″
June 18, 2010 6 1/2″
June 18, 2010 12″
June 18, 2010 18″
June 18, 2010 11″
June 18, 2010 9″
June 18, 2010 10″
June 18, 2010 7 1/2″

*Originally Planted in Larger Pots

Fall Colors
I may have planted these guys late, but apparently they got to grow a little longer here in warm North Carolina. On Facebook, I saw someone’s Restoration chestnuts in Traverse City, Michigan yellowing in early October. Our chestnuts didn’t start to yellow until nearly a month later.  I first spotted changing leaves on November 17th.

American Chestnuts - Take II - November 18 - Yellowing
Yellowing Chestnuts – November 18th

The chestnuts got their first glimpse of snow of December 5, 2010. As you can see, some of them are STILL sporting green leaves!

American Chestnut - Aww, Chestnuts' First Snow
Chestnuts’ First Snow – 12/5/2010

American Chestnut - Aww, Chestnuts' First Snow 3
Chestnuts’ First Snow – 12/5/2010

The Neighborhood Kids
As with many of our endeavors, the neighborhood kids were involved. Above you saw that Jacal helped with the soil mixing and the planting. When Ryan and I traveled to Cape Cod this summer, the chestnuts stayed healthy under the watchful eye of Dada, Vick and Risha. But here is my favorite American Chestnut/Neighborhood Kid story (so far):

Over the summer, 4th grader Tyrek came over for a visit. We talked on the back deck surrounded by all the little baby chestnuts and all the little baby pawpaws. Tyrek was telling me a story when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence. He looked at his surroundings and said, “Vicky, these trees make me happy!”

My reply— “They make me happy too.” : )

And there you go! Sometimes trying again can be terrifying. Sometimes trying again seems hopeless. But sometimes… sometimes trying again will bring you something to smile about.

Additional Resources
Please note– this post is just a discussion of my experience and I am far, far, far from an expert and am still learning myself. If you are interested in growing American chestnuts, I recommend the following references:

TACF Fact Sheet – How To Grow Your Chestnuts
Growing Chestnuts From Seed – Long Instructions from Meadowview Research Farm
Growing Chestnuts From Seed – Quick Instructions from Meadowview Research Farm
The Chestnut Growers Mailing List (Great resource for questions and answers)

For more information of donating to or becoming a member of The American Chestnut Foundation, visit:
http://www.acf.org
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Entry filed under: American Chestnut, American Chestnut Foundation, Neighborhood Kids, Restoration Chestnut, rvw10, trees. Tags: .

Behind Michael Nichols’ Redwood Pictures Craft Week with the Neighborhood Kids – Christmas Parade Float #relayforlife

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elizabeth | The Natural Capital  |  December 6, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Good for you for trying again! I find the whole endeavor of trying to breed resistance to the blight just fascinating. Such a long-term undertaking, and so many people volunteering to help…and it sounds like good progress is being made!

    Reply
  • 2. Rebecca  |  December 6, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Fascinating! I love your idea of the chestnuts as a metaphor for the importance of trying again. Where I live, in the southeastern U.S., we’re currently losing all of our native red bay trees to an exotic beetle. Hopefully someday someone will do for the bays what the American Chestnut Foundation is doing for the chestnut.

    Have you read the novel Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver? The fate of the American Chestnut plays a major symbolic role in it.

    Reply
  • 3. Georgia  |  December 7, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    I love this story Vicky, for its theme of perseverance and the role of children in growing your chestnuts.

    Reply
  • 4. geekhiker  |  December 8, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    That’s awesome. When are you going to give up the silly technology career and become a full-time arborist?

    Reply
  • 5. Kitty  |  December 10, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    You are awesome!! And what a quick response to my request about more info about your chestnut trees!! I think you posted this like a day later!! It’s been in my Inbox marked as unread since I really wanted to give it enough time to thoroughly read and take in. I love it!! One of my all-tiime favorite parts is: “…the scientist surprised me, an established tree killer, by offering me more seed.” haha! I’m so glad that scientist did!! I also LOVE the neighborhood kid story. Plants seriously do contribute to happiness I think, especially itty bitty baby plants! When I worked as an environmental consultant (before teaching, before I was a mommy), I had so many plants in the office that they called my corner “The Jungle”. I loved it. There’s nothing like some fresh oxygen and cheer in a drab dull office. And, as you discovered, there’s nothing like some fresh survivor oxygen and cheer on a back deck, shared with the neighborhood!! :) Where do you plan to plant your trees when they reach the appropriate size? I love this story and I totally commend you for doing what you’re doing. You’re so scientific about it, too… it brings back fond memories. Maybe when Maddie is a bit bigger, we can do a similar project/experiment up here in Maine. Thanks, as always, for sharing!

    Reply
  • 6. jasmine  |  January 3, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    This is an amazing post. Thank you :)

    Reply
  • 7. Lisa  |  January 4, 2011 at 4:02 am

    I have really, really enjoyed this post even though I have never read anything about chestnuts before. I admire what you are doing and the honesty of your post. That alone is inspiring and good on you for trying again! Thanks for sharing this story!

    Reply
  • 8. 6 Year Blogaversary « TGAW  |  March 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    [...] A Lesson from the American Chestnut Our experience with growing potentially blight-resistant American chestnuts from the American Chestnut Foundation…and the importance of trying again. [...]

    Reply
  • 9. Happy 2nd Birthday, American Chestnuts! « TGAW  |  June 23, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    [...] Restoration Chestnuts from the American Chestnut Foundation were planted on June 17th and June 18th of 2010.  That means they celebrated their second birthday earlier this [...]

    Reply
  • 10. Amanda  |  February 20, 2013 at 11:06 am

    How did you get the seeds for growing? Do you have links to suppliers?

    Reply
    • 11. Vicky  |  February 20, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Hey Amanda,
      Life Sponsor and Annual Sponsor members of The American Chestnut Foundation are eligible for potentially blight-resistant seeds. You can find out more information here:

      http://shop.acf.org/annual-sponsor-seed-distribution.aspx

      I hope this helps! Thanks for your interest in the American chestnut!

      Vicky

      Reply

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