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Courtesy Photo

Nearly 400 American chestnut trees will be planted in Hollis next month as part of a national project to restore the tree, which was wiped out by blight a half-century ago. This picture shows the pricly covering of the trees' nuts. Locals are invited to learn more about the project Saturday.
Friday, April 27, 2012

American chestnut tree restoration program comes to Beaver Brook in Hollis

HOLLIS – Local land will soon be home to a species of American Chestnut trees years in the making, and members of the public are invited to learn more about the project Saturday.

Beaver Brook Association has partnered with The American Chestnut Foundation to create and maintain a planting of nearly 400 potentially blight-resistant America chestnuts in northern New England.

American chestnuts once dominated forests in the eastern United States, covering over 200 million acres of woodlands from Maine to northern Florida. That changed in the late 1800s, however, when a lethal fungal disease, Asian blight, came to the country and killed off much of the species.

The planting in town, part of a large project to repopulate the country with the trees, will not be held until May 19, but interested locals can head to Beaver Brook’s Maple Hill Farm headquarters Saturday, April 28, to learn more about the project and how they can get involved.

“It was probably the most useful tree there ever was,” Beaver Brook Natural Resource Manager Peter Smith said Wednesday. “They were straight, fast-growing with strong timber... People ate the nuts and wildlife depended on them. The thought of bringing it back is intriguing for anyone who knows the history of the tree.”

Kendra Gurney, the New England Regional Science Coordinator with the chestnut foundation, has been working since 2008 to help repopulate the area with the trees.

Gurney is one of several members of the foundation who will be at Maple Hill Farm this weekend to teach locals about that history and the species’ restoration.

Gurney said the first known case of blight appeared in New York City in 1904 and reached New Hampshire by the 1920s. The blight, carried on the wind and small animals, is fast-moving and affects the living tissues under the bark of a tree.

Attempts to repopulate the chestnut tree began about 30 years ago, she said. The process uses cross-pollination to breed trees that are more resistant to the Asian blight.

Once a tree is cross-pollinated and its seeds have grown into trees about 3 inches in diameter, the blight is introduced to the trees to see how resistant they are. The most resistant trees are then cross-pollinated again, producing their own nuts and seedlings and creating a more resistant tree with each generation.

The nuts that will be planted locally are part of the sixth, and final, generation of trees created through this process in Virginia. Gurney said that other sixth generation nuts have been planted elsewhere, but that the May planting will be the furthest north.

Last May, a similar but smaller planting of several cross-pollinated chestnuts from Virginia was completed at the former Benson’s Wild Animal Farm.

Gurney said she is interested to see how the plants do in colder conditions, and that the primary purpose of the planting in town next month will be to study how well they thrive.

The Beaver Brook land is ideal, she said, because there are naturally occurring chestnuts in the area.

Smith said Wednesday that volunteers will likely be needed after the planting next month. Saturday’s event, he said, will aim to educate the public and recruit volunteers. Members of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation will hold their annual meeting Saturday morning at 10 a.m. in the Brown Lane Barn.

Activities for the public will begin at 1 p.m. at Maple Hill Farm, where a presentation on the history, loss, and restoration of the American chestnut will be held. A walking tour of the planting site will be offered around 2 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashuatelegraph.com.