CAMDEN, Maine — The prospects for the return of American chestnuts to the forests of Maine will be given a big boost this spring with the start of a new partnership between the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation and Coastal Mountains Land Trust.
The collaboration will further the land trust’s efforts to develop and restore blight-resistant American chestnuts to Maine’s forests. American chestnuts, once abundant and the most ecologically and economically important forest trees in Appalachia, were almost completely wiped out by a Chestnut blight on imported Asian chestnut trees in the late 1800s. The blight swept through Maine in the 1920s and ’30s. Today a handful of trees in Maine, grown back from the roots of trees initially affected by the blight, are some of the largest in the U.S. and are playing a key role in chestnut restoration efforts.
The land trust has agreed to identify and make available potential sites on its preserves to develop small American chestnut seed orchards as part of the chestnut foundation’s larger breeding program. Approximately 150 chestnut seeds will be planted in each three-quarter-acre orchard. In April, the foundation will plant the first two seed orchards organized through this partnership at the Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport. These plantings will follow the Maine chapter’s previous work of planting 250 chestnuts at Merryspring Nature Center in Camden, the first of 11 breeding orchards in the state. Last fall chapter volunteers harvested the first crop of seeds from the Merryspring orchard, and expect some of those to be blight-resistant. The breeding program is on track to begin producing blight-resistant chestnuts for reforestation in Maine by the end of this decade.
The two organizations also have agreed to continue working together to identify locations to plant wild, native Maine chestnuts. Past plantings of native chestnuts in Maine have thrived for 15-25 years without being affected by the blight. The land trust and foundation will plant native chestnut seedlings in early May at the Hatchet Mountain Preserve in Hope.
Additionally, the two organizations will plant several “Restoration Chestnuts” at the Harkness Preserve in Rockport. “Restoration chestnuts” are potentially highly blight-resistant seedlings that have been made available from the foundation’s research farms in Virginia. These seedlings are from the final generation of their backcross breeding program, which is about a generation ahead of Maine’s breeding program. The Harkness Preserve was chosen because it is the site of some of the last remaining wild, native Maine chestnuts.
Volunteers are needed for all phases of this project, particularly for the establishment and maintenance of the seed orchards. Anyone interested in getting involved with helping with this effort should contact Eric Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.