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SUNY ESF working to bring back the American chesnut tree

Ellen Abbott/WRVO

SUNY ESF is working to bring back a tree that once made up one quarter of the standing timber in forests in the Eastern United States. Now, researchers have come up with a variety of the tree that resists the blight that killed billions of American chestnut trees.

"You've heard of 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire?' Well, those are American chestnuts they're singing about."

SUNY ESF professor Bill Powell says it's not just holiday revelers who need chestnut trees, destroyed by a blight brought to this country a century ago.

"It was a very important tree to the ecology. A lot of wildlife relied on the nuts, very consistent crop of nuts, unlike the oaks that have replaced them, which is not very consistent. So if we bring the chestnut back, we can support a lot more wildlife in the forests."

So researchers have come up with this new version of the American chestnut, created by adding a gene to the cells that make up the tree.  

"These trees are what we call our 'Darling 4' trees. They are trees we have added a gene to to enhance blight resistance. And one of the great things about these trees, is they're are some of the first ones we've tested in the field that actually showed enhanced blight resistance. They aren't our best trees, but they're ones that are the furthest along. Some of the earliest ones we've produced."

Back on Arbor Day, students planted three of the Darling 4 trees in front of the school's gateway building to show that the tree can resist a blight. Powell says the ultimate goal is to restore the trees to eastern forests.

"There was somewhere between three to five billion American chestnut trees in the eastern forests. To get back to that it's gonna take at least a contrary or more. And that is if people get involved and start planting these trees."

The next step is getting federal approval for the reclamation project, and Powell says the next group of trees produced in labs should be ready to grow.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.