On Monday, June 22, BTLT welcomed Larry Totten of the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) to the Tarbox Preserve in Topsham. The ACF is a national organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the native chestnut tree as well as to cultivate and plant blight-resistant trees. Totten, a member of the Maine chapter, brought twelve saplings grown at the University of Maine-Orono. With the help of Stewardship Manager Margaret Gerber, BTLT summer intern Dylan Sloan, and CREA summer intern Alex Gates, the Tarbox Preserve is now home to those twelve chestnut saplings, which will eventually grow into a small grove.
The Chestnut tree is native to the eastern United States. “[The tree grows on the] eastern seaboard,” said Totten. “More in the mountains than the coast, along the Appalachian Mountains and all the way uphill.” Although the tree does grow in the wild in Maine, the ACF’s work is vital in ensuring that blight-resistant trees can be introduced to coastal environments such as midcoast Maine.
Totten and the rest of the Maine chapter of the ACF often reach out to organizations such as the BTLT inquiring about possible locations to plant chestnut seedlings. When the BTLT suggested the Tarbox Preserve and brought him out to take a look at it, he had a feeling it would do the trick.
“[This spot] had some good decent soil on top, and it appeared to be well-drained,” said Totten. The clearing, which is just a few hundred yards from the parking lot, receives direct sunlight and drains well because it is on top of a small hill. Hopefully, the prime location will yield healthy trees that will quickly grow out of their support tubes. However, it’s hard to estimate at what rate these trees will develop.
“It’s so hard to define as a single answer. In ideal soil, these seedlings will be out of their planting tubes (around 4 feet) by the end of the summer,” said Totten. “If they get enough water and they like the soil…they’ll get out of the tube. But then you have to worry about deer eating the leaves!”
The trees at Tarbox Preserve are the offspring of wild American chestnuts discovered and preserved by the American Chestnut Foundation. They will hopefully grow to adulthood before the fungal blight gets to them.
“These [saplings] are all wild stock. Elsewhere in Maine, we’ve got 45,000 trees in the ground that are a fifth-generation crossbreed from the Chinese,” said Totten. “[All of the candidates] will be injected with blight. The blight kills most of them, but if we end up with two blight-resistant trees, we’re good. All you need is two!”
One of the ACF’s largest projects is experimenting with disease resistance in chestnut trees. Recently, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York has a breakthrough in injecting wheat genes into a Chestnut tree for increased disease resistance. The specimen is still awaiting governmental approval, but if it is given the green light it could be the “next big thing” for chestnut reforestation on the east coast.
“We have three different programs going, and [disease resistance] one of them” said Totten. “Another is gene preservation, which is in a sense what we’re doing here—but I hope it’s going to be more than that!”
Indeed, as the years go by this grove of chestnut trees will hopefully do much more than preserve the chestnut gene pool—they will also be a beautiful feature for visitors to the Tarbox Preserve to enjoy. Although it will be more than a few years before these trees grow to adulthood, this partnership between the BTLT and the ACF will yield a gorgeous chestnut grove in the future.