When you hear about endangered species, most of us think about the plights of our furry or feathered friends. This article describes the plight of some of the less cuddly members of the endangered species list. Indiana is home to a number of endangered and threatened tree species. In this multi-part series, we will identify some of the tree species and describe some of their unique characteristics.
Our first species is the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) sometimes called the “Sequoia of the East”. This species was once found thriving throughout eastern forests from central Maine west to southeastern Michigan, and south to northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
Early 20th century estimates indicated that these trees numbered closed to 4 billion with the finest, most productive stands found in the Appalachian Mountains and southern New England. American chestnut is a fast growing species that can reach a pinnacle of 120 feet high and 10 feet or more in diameter. The majority of the mature trees were between 3 and 5 feet in diameter and 60 to 90 feet high. The fruit from this tree has been a valued food source for humans, wildlife, and livestock alike. Timber from this former giant is naturally rot-resistant and nearly as durable as oak yet lighter.
American chestnut populations went into decline after the introduction of chestnut blight.
Chestnut blight is caused by the fungal pathogen (Cryphonectria parasitica), and was accidentally introduced into the American population by imported Asian chestnut trees a century ago. American chestnut is highly susceptible to the fungus which enters the tree through any small wound or crack in the bark. The fungus replicates beneath the bark and produces toxins which lead to plant cell death. The fungus continues to grow until it has circumnavigated the tree and effectively stopped the flow of nutrients. Everything above the girdled circle of fungus will die. The primary symptoms of chestnut blight disease are a sunken canker and orange spores covering the bark.
Loss of American chestnut on the landscape has resulted in reduced species diversity and severely reduced fall mast for woodland animal species. In addition, leaves of American chestnut contain greater nutrient concentrations (nitrogen [N], phosphorus [P], potassium [K]) than most other co-occurring trees therefore its loss affects soil nutrient cycling.
American chestnut has survived thus far because it has the ability to sprout from roots and stumps of diseased trees. However, these trees rarely live to maturity thus are often unable to flower and bear fruit. Numerous efforts to restore the tree to its former glory have been and are currently being attempted. Thus far, two of the most effective methods of breeding for resistance are hybridizing with resistant Asian parents and attempting to intercross surviving pure American chestnuts. The HTIRC within the Forestry and Natural Resources Department at Purdue University is working on hybridization of American chestnuts with Asian chestnuts for future restoration of resistant American-like chestnuts for Indiana.
The American Chestnut Foundation
A New Generation of American chestnut Trees May Redefine America’s Forests – Scientific American
Consequences of Shifts in Abundance and Distribution of American Chestnut for Restoration of a Foundation Forest Tree – Forests Open Access Forestry Journal
Transgenic American chestnuts show enhanced blight resistance and transmit the trait to T1 progeny – Science Direct (Plant Science)
Scientists Work to Create a Blight-Resistant Chestnut with Hopes of Restoring Tree to America, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture
FNR Hardwood – American Chestnut, Purdue Arboretum Explorer
Hardwood Tree Improvement Regeneration Center (HTIRC) Research Publications
American Chestnut Trees return to the Hoosier National Forest, Indiana Woodland Steward
Forest Regeneration and Restoration Laboratory, Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources, Dr. Doug Jacobs
Shaneka Lawson, USDA Forest Service and HTIRC Research Plant Physiologist & Adjunct Assistant Professor
Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources