In Springside Park, an effort to give a fighting chance to a tree classified as extinct: the American chestnut

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PITTSFIELD — Anthony Rennie and Nyrell Latini have a rooted interested in reviving the nearly extinct American chestnut.

The boys, members of Dalton Cub Scouts, Pack 42, spent three hours Sunday morning digging 150 small holes for seedlings in hopes just a few become disease-resistant trees capable of repopulating area forests.

Under their mothers' supervision, the youths worked side-by-side as part of a Cub Scouts service project.

"I do one [hole] and he does the next one," Nyrell, 7, told an Eagle reporter.

Anthony found having reliable hand tools made for quick work.

"It was easy because we had [garden trowels] that were sharp," noted the 8-year-old.

The youngsters were helping expand the four-year-old orchard at Springside Park managed by the Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation. The work sessions were open to all volunteers, continuing the foundation's effort to educate the public about their project.

"The people getting involved will give the chestnut a chance," said arborist Bob Presutti of Pittsfield, chestnut orchard manager.

Assisted by several area residents over the weekend, foundation workers planted 300 seedlings bringing the total to roughly 3,000 trees on the one-acre site.

In 2014, Pittsfield became the first of now five Massachusetts communities to host a chestnut seedling orchard in an effort to restore a species nearly wiped out by an Asian bark blight that infested the hardwood starting in 1904. The four billion chestnuts that primarily dominated the Appalachian Mountain range all but disappeared by the end of World War II — a 40-year period, according to the foundation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers the American chestnut functionally extinct because the blight fungus does not kill the tree's root system underground. The American chestnut has survived by producing stump sprouts in logged and other open areas, only to die back into the ground due to the blight.

Massachusetts/Rhode Island chapter president, Lois Melican said the restoration of the chestnut begins with seedling orchards, such as the one at Springside Park. Once the trees reach two to three inches in diameter, they are injected with the bark blight disease. Melican says the ones planted four years ago could be ready for testing next year; those rated a 1 on a scale of 1 to 5 are considered the most disease-resistant.

"A tree that is fighting off the infection at the injection site is the best," she noted.

Statistically, 1 in 64 survive, meaning the Pittsfield orchard could have up to 45 fairly healthy trees. However, Melican pointed out only one of the thriving chestnuts from each the of 20 plots will be chosen to mature, the rest cut down. The remaining trees will be harvested, the nuts used to seed eastern U.S. forests.

"The chestnut tree was critical to wildlife (the nuts feeding birds and animals) and the wood was naturally rot-resistant, making for great lumber," Melican said.

A successful restoration could also see American chestnut nuts become available for human consumption.

"My father used to eat them and he said they were the sweetest of the chestnuts," Presutti said.

The nuts sold today are imported or harvested from other chestnut tree species introduced to America, according to the foundation.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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