You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Worcester chestnut tree dies but Tower Hill has seedlings

Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. logo Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. 7/18/2019 By Cyrus Moulton, Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
a close up of a green plant: An American chestnut seedling at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Bylston shows new growth Thursday. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson] © T&G Staff/Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass./TNS An American chestnut seedling at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Bylston shows new growth Thursday. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson]

BOYLSTON - The American chestnut tree that last fall produced chestnuts in Worcester for the first time in a century has died because of poor site conditions at Green Hill Park in Worcester.

But the fruit of that harvest lives on in 10 carefully tended seedlings at Tower Hill Botanic Garden, continuing hope that the "redwoods of the East" can recover locally from a devastating blight.

Last fall an American chestnut tree in Green Hill Park produced the first chestnuts in Worcester since a blight essentially wiped out the species. That tree has died but its harvest produced seedlings now growing at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. Pictured, Amy Nyman shows the original chestnut at the root of a seedling on Thursday. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson] © T&G Staff/Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass./TNS Last fall an American chestnut tree in Green Hill Park produced the first chestnuts in Worcester since a blight essentially wiped out the species. That tree has died but its harvest produced seedlings now growing at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. Pictured, Amy Nyman shows the original chestnut at the root of a seedling on Thursday. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson]

"We have been told they could be blight-resistant which is why we really care about them," said Ruth Seward, executive director of the Worcester Tree Initiative, as she held one of the seedlings at Tower Hill's horticultural nursery.

The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, was once the keystone species in the Eastern forest, representing at least one out of every four hardwoods. Considered the "redwood of the East" for its formidable size — up to nearly 100 feet and 10 feet in diameter - a mature tree produced up to 15 bushels of nuts. These provided fall forage for animals wild and domestic, and the nostalgic memory of roasted chestnuts lives on in the classic "The Christmas Song" performed by Nat King Cole.

a hand holding a plant: Amy Nyman shows new growth on an American Chestnut seedling Thursday at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson] © T&G Staff/Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass./TNS Amy Nyman shows new growth on an American Chestnut seedling Thursday at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson]

Meanwhile, the straight-grained, fast-growing wood was naturally rot-resistant — a precursor to pressure-treated wood — and was used for railroad ties, utility poles and furniture, and to frame buildings.

"It was even used as a street tree, and families in Worcester would go and harvest the nuts for livestock," Ms. Seward said.

But in 1904, a fungal disease called chestnut blight was introduced to America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The blight spread across the East, hitting Massachusetts in 1912-1915, and destroyed 4 billion trees by 1950.

The destruction has been called the greatest ecological disaster in the history of the world's forests.

The American chestnut is only considered "functionally extinct" by the United States Department of Agriculture, however, because the blight does not kill the tree's root system. This enables the tree to send up shoots that can reach 20 feet high before they succumb to the disease.

And the tree has some important allies, including the American Chestnut Foundation, which has been cross-breeding American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts since 1983 to develop a blight-resistant tree with the characteristic height and form of the American chestnut. (The foundation's move towards genetically engineered American chestnut trees has recently caused dissension among local group members.)

a group of people posing for the camera: Derek Lirange, Ruth Seward and Amy Nyman, right, hold American chestnut seedlings Thursday at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston.    [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson] © T&G Staff/Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass./TNS Derek Lirange, Ruth Seward and Amy Nyman, right, hold American chestnut seedlings Thursday at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. [T&G Staff/Christine Peterson]

On Arbor Day 2014, the foundation teamed up with the Worcester Tree Initiative to plant blight-resistant American chestnuts in Worcester's Green Hill Park.

Last fall, one of the trees flowered and - thanks to hand pollination - bore fruit for the first time, producing prickly burrs that resemble green sea urchins and contain two to three chestnuts.

Those burrs and chestnuts were harvested in October by the WTI and then-members of the ACF.

But work on Memorial Grove changed the hydrology of the site at Green Hill, and water flooded the roots of the mature tree shortly after the harvest.

"They don't like to have their feet stay wet," explained Derek Lirange, a community forester with the tree initiative.

"It cuts off oxygen to the roots," added Amy Nyman, an outdoor gardener in the horticultural department at Tower Hill. "Most trees don't like that."

The tree appeared stressed in November, and in June, Mr. Lirange determined that the tree had died due to the site conditions.

"There was no indication of blight with any trees left in the park," said Mr. Lirange. "It was a good sign."

And thankfully, the seventh generation of the tree lived on in the chestnuts that had been harvested last fall.

They germinated this spring and now 10 seedlings are growing at Tower Hill.

"This would be a first," said Ms. Nyman. "I've never had care of chestnut trees before."

Ms. Seward is hopeful that once the seedlings grow large enough to withstand the deer and rabbits of Green Hill Park, they can be planted alongside the five other trees that have survived since 2014.

"They used to be a real prolific tree," Ms. Seward said. "We hope to get them back."

———

©2019 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.

Visit Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. at www.telegram.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AdChoices

More from Telegram & Gazette

Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon