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American chestnut may make a comeback

5:10 PM, Mar 29, 2013   |    comments
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Chestnuts (file)

The Appalachian Mountains used to be full of a grand tree, the American chestnut. Then most of them died in the eastern part of the United States.

Now volunteers are lending their land to help restore the tree.

At a Fentress county family farm, Joe and Lyna Pennycuff grow Christmas trees.

"We are really big nature people. And there is no better way to really get involved and learn about and promote nature then to have a Christmas tree farm," said co-owner of Sycamore Springs Farm Lyna Pennycuff.

The tree lovers are taking part in an American Chestnut Foundation program to re-establish the American chestnut. A lot of the trees died in the early 1900s. Their farm in Allardt features small orchards of hybrids.

"We're trying to produce a Tennessee chestnut the is resistant to Cryphonectria parasitica, which is chestnut blight," Matt Harris with the American Chestnut Foundation said.

He said the Chinese chestnut co-exists with the fungus that kills the American chestnut. So the American Chestnut Foundation is working to cross-pollinate the two types of trees by hand.

"Through a series of back cross breeding we breed out all Chinese characteristics but we want to hold on to the blight resistance that it's going to get from its Chinese ancestors," Harris said.

Volunteers like the Pennycuffs lend their land to the project.

"To try to get back that magic, majestic, gigantic king of the forest the American Chestnut," Lyna Pennycuff said.

Area Forester Brad Canfield says reintroducing the American chestnut would make forest less vulnerable to insects and disease.

"It used to be the predominate tree hear in the mountains with the chestnut in there with the oaks and the hickory and the pines diversity will be much greater," he said.

By 2020, Tennessee hopes to have a blight resistant American chestnut. Then those saplings can be planted and will be part of our forests again.

"Our Tennessee tree will be 31/32 American so the only thing it's going to have from its Chinese ancestors is blight resistance," Harris explained.

Lyna Pennycuff said, "We're very interested in having these trees grow to 5 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall again here in America."

Of course, the Pennycuffs won't be around when the trees reach their mature height.

But their grand children will be.

"Sometimes you just do things for something better in the future and that's what we want to do here," she said.

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