American Chestnuts in the Field

By the 1950s, two non-native pathogens had killed almost all American chestnut trees. “There’s a lot of interest in breeding a chestnut that looks like American chestnut with the disease resistance of Chinese chestnut,” says U.S. Forest Service research forester Stacy Clark. “However, there hasn’t been much research on reintroducing disease-resistant trees to the forest.”

In cooperation with the University of Tennessee, scientists planted American chestnut, Chinese chestnut, and the hybrid chestnut in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky. The study was part of a larger Forest Service study designed to improve forest health and promote natural oak regeneration before non-native gypsy moths invade.

The scientists used three different silvicultural methods – shelterwood harvest, thinning, and midstory tree removal. The treatments created a gradient of light levels, from open canopy, to intermediate, to closed canopy.

Seedling survival and growth were tracked until 2012. “We also compared chestnut seedlings to other trees and shrubs,” says Schweitzer. “Our goal was to see how well chestnut competes for growing space and sunlight.”

Natural American chestnut sprouts can survive on the shady forest floor for decades, waiting for a disturbance to send some light their way, but it is not known how planted seedlings will perform. Their unique combination of shade tolerance and quick growth means managers might be able to use a range of silvicultural strategies to restore the species.

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