St. Paul, Minn. (December 5, 2000)—"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" may not be a thing of the past if Dr. Sandra Anagnostakis and her plant pathology colleagues from around the country succeed at stopping the deadly chestnut blight pathogen. It used to be a common sight to see chestnut vendors selling roasted chestnut from this majestic tree around the holiday season. But by 1930 chestnut trees were all but gone, wiped out by an uncontrollable disease. It’s taken almost a hundred years, but scientists believe they may have finally won the battle against the disease that killed them.
Called “the redwoods of the East,” chestnut trees grew to heights of 80 to 100 feet and were often 4 feet or more in diameter. Their rot-resistant wood made them one of the country’s main timber sources and roasted chestnuts were a popular winter food, especially around the holidays.
Dying chestnut trees were first noticed in New York in 1904. A fungus accidentally brought to this country on Japanese chestnut trees was found to be responsible. None of the attempts to control its spread worked and eventually most of the nation’s chestnut trees succumbed to the disease. Chestnut trees found in the woods today are not really trees in the original sense, but shoots that have sprouted from old chestnut tree stumps. The fungus does not attack the roots, and this allows these shrub-like versions of the original chestnut tree to continue to survive.
Scientists are hopeful however that they can restore the once beloved chestnut tree to at least some of its original grandeur. Sandra Anagnostakis and colleagues of The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station are among the scientists reporting success. Asian trees resistant to chestnut blight have been crossed with American trees in the hopes of ultimately creating a disease resistant hybrid.
Anagnostakis’s work has resulted in an American chestnut tree with at least partial resistance to blight. She has also worked for many years on a system of biological control discovered in Europe. Although the biocontrol is not good enough to produce timber trees Anagnostakis says, “At the very least, we will be able to maintain American trees as nut-bearing populations. Then if we plant our new resistant hybrids out into these plots, they will cross with native trees. The first generation offspring will be intermediate in resistance, but in subsequent generations trees with full resistance will be produced.” Valued for their beauty as much as their wood and nuts, the hope is that the majestic chestnut will once again grace U.S. forests.
The work of Anagnostakis and her colleagues is currently featured on the website of the American Phytopatholgical Society (APS) and can be found at www.apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/Pages/ChestnutBlightDisease.aspx. APS is a nonprofit, professional scientific organization dedicated to the study and control of plant disease with 5,000 members worldwide.