American Chestnut Trees Return to the Hoosier National Forest

By Teena Ligman

Once a prominent forest tree in southern Indiana, potentially blight resistant American chestnut trees have now been re-planted on the Hoosier. The first of two areas have been planted with blight-resistant American chestnut trees on the Hoosier National Forest. Eleven Forest Service employees, three from Purdue University, and one from the Northern Research Station and from the Indiana Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), came out for the memorable day to help plant American chestnut back on the Forest.

Chris Thornton, Forest Silviculturist, led the effort for the Hoosier, saying "I think it's a neat project. It was a lot of work, but it's the first place in Indiana that they've planted chestnuts other than in research plots so we're pretty proud to be part of that."

Thornton worked with Jim McKenna from the Forest Service Northern Research Station's Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center at Purdue University. McKenna said that the purpose of the planting is to confirm the blight resistance of the 15/16 TACF American chestnut seedlings and to make sure that they are competitive in a forest environment. The blight resistant American chestnut trees are the product of initially hybridizing American chestnut with Chinese chestnut and then crossing those seedlings back to American chestnut for 3 generations. Genetically the trees are then 15/16th American chestnut and 1/16th Chinese chestnut. The only trait TACF tries to retain from the Chinese is natural blight resistance; otherwise, the trees look like pure Americans.

The first planting consisted of 606 trees.

  • ·         322 Fully resistant American chestnuts from TACF in Virginia
  • ·         60 Indiana 15/16 American chestnuts from IN-TACF Indiana
  • ·         66 Pure American chestnut trees - Indiana
  • ·         50 Chinese chestnut trees – Purdue
  • ·         108 Native oaks around the edges (black, scarlet, and northern) - Indiana Division of Forestry (IDNR), Vallonia Nursery. All of the chestnut stock for this trial was grown at the IDNR Vallonia Nursery.

The Chinese chestnuts function as "controls" to compare their blight resistance with the resistance of the fully-resistant American chestnuts. Likewise, the pure American chestnut will function as a fully susceptible control, that is, it should have no resistance. The oak trees border the chestnut planting and can provide species competition data. According to Thornton the Chinese and pure American chestnuts will be removed before flowering to prevent cross-pollination with the blight resistant seedling or local seed sources.

Thornton said these trees will be given every opportunity to do well. They were planted in a fenced enclosure to keep out deer and minimize browse and damage from wildlife. They will have herbicides applied as needed to control weeds and undesirable competition.

The fenced enclosure was built with help from fire crews from the Ottawa and White Mountain, Hoosier employees, Northern Research Station, Purdue University, and IN-TACF people. Thornton explained the area was part of a group selection sale so it was heavily covered with tops from the timber sale which were bucked up into smaller pieces so the planters could move through the site and plant the trees on a pre-determined 8-foot square grid pattern. Everyone who helped agreed it was a hard job climbing around the slash and digging holes for the one-year-old seedlings which for the most part had large well developed root systems.

Ron Doyle planted the first 15/16th blight-resistant American chestnut on the Hoosier. He named it "Irvin Huckleberry" after his father who has been a long-time member of the American Chestnut Foundation. His father was very pleased to hear the trees were returning to Indiana and though he's now in a nursing home, Ron took pictures of his name-sake tree to show his dad.

Thornton said as word of this planting has leaked out, other people in the area, especially older people who remember the chestnut trees, have been excited as well to hear that the chestnut is returning to the Forest. He said these first trees will be closely monitored. Each individual tree's location will be determined by GPS and checked often.

Another site with similar protocols will be planted in 2012.

Teena Ligman is a Public Affairs Specialist for the USDA Forest Service, Wayne and Hoosier National Forests.