Friday, October 22, 2010

American Chestnuts...and Ultrarunning

(photo by Gary)

The leaf is from the American Chestnut, Castanea dentata. This is from a healthy sapling, that nearly certainly will die within the next 10 years. I just took this shot—one of hundreds I could have taken—near Little Stony Man Cliffs in Shenandoah National Park. Wikipedia tells us more:

Once an important hardwood timber tree, the American Chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, caused by an Asian bark fungus accidentally introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease was first noticed on American Chestnut trees in what was then the New York Zoological Park in 1904. The airborne bark fungus spread 50 miles a year and in a few decades girdled and killed up to three billion American Chestnut trees. New shoots often sprout from the roots when the main stem dies, so the species has not yet become extinct. However, the stump sprouts rarely reach more than 6 meters (20 ft) in height before blight infection returns.

Here are 2 stunning statements:

It is estimated that the total number of chestnut trees in eastern North America was over three billion, and that 25 percent of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American Chestnut.

The number of large surviving American Chestnut trees over 60 centimeters (24 in) in diameter within the tree's former range is probably fewer than 100.

I always get excited when I see chestnut saplings when I run along the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains (for example, along the Appalachian Trail). They speak to me of perseverance and of hope.

The American Chestnut Foundation is agressively working to develop a blight-resistant strain, and results thus far look very promising.  More here.

In today’s world where everything is known and already discovered, I hold out the hope that in a hidden hollow somewhere I will chance upon a mature, healthy specimen that has survived the blight.  And I will no doubt weep for joy.

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