It’s a blessing moving into a home, as I did 13 years ago, where the previous owners had been interested in the plantings. Hence a lovely hawthorn, flowering dogwood, flowering quince and a linden tree that, when flowering, smells sweet.
And a sometimes foul-smelling chestnut — like a dead fish.
It’s not an American chestnut, billions of which succumbed to the blight early last century, but an Asian import.
Still, my chestnut produces nuts, double-wrapped in a sea-urchin-like outer shell and an additional inner case, just as American chestnuts are encased. It’s a wonder squirrels and chipmunks can open them. The nuts can be a cash crop. The family who owned the land before me had three chestnuts, plus two shagbark hickories.
Rather than growing straight up — upward of 100 feet, as American chestnuts did — the Asian variety tend to branch out in a scraggly fashion, meaning their wood is much less valuable. When 25 percent of the hardwood trees in the Appalachians were chestnut, the light but durable, rot-resistant wood was the choice for houses, barns, furniture and caskets.
For 100 years after the chestnut was functionally wiped out, horticulturalists have struggled to cross survivors in such a way that they would be blight resistant. As the root collar and system of some trees survived, often sending up small shoots that sometimes flowered, scientists worked with these and well as crossing with Asian varieties, but without success.
Undaunted, the American Chestnut Society turned to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y., which recently produced Darling 58. They inserted a gene from wheat that prevents the production of an acid that allows the fungal invader to kill the tree. According to testing so far, it does so without causing inadvertent environmental risks. If the Department of Agriculture deregulates Darling, widespread planting will be available. Darling would then be the first genetically engineered plant released with the purpose of spreading widely.
Whether this possibility constitutes good news depends. It scares some folks, for example, that Monsanto (now Bayer) backs the project, calling up shades of the company’s herbicide resistant crops where pests are controlled by an onslaught of chemicals. Releasing genetically engineered chestnut into the forest would be a massive and irreversible experiment, some say. They want American chestnut to be our chestnut, no wheat added. Worse, they are concerned that Darling would be only the first installment of engineered forestry.
That is, in fact, a goal. Among the elms on my property, many young and one senior, I planted an elm bred to resist disease. It is fighting for its life. I remove dead branches, while the tree’s bark is mostly detached. Perhaps the arching elms, our roadside tree of choice until the Dutch elm disease attacked, might be the next candidate for genetic engineering.
Concerns about genetically engineered forests are well-taken, given all the interactions that trees have with soil, insects, birds and beasts that depend on them for mast — like chestnuts. Every tree species has its biological enemy, however, while we continue to learn the many uses of trees, including sequestering carbon. And if we were to build with American chestnut, as our ancestors did, that carbon would remain sequestered as long as the buildings stood.
Resurrecting the American chestnut is not merely a sentimental exercise. And, for that matter, a genetically engineered chestnut, with just a bit of wheat, seems more of an American chestnut than one cross-bred with a smelly Asian chestnut, say, were that possible.
At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.