10 Facts Why Animals Should Not Be Kept In Zoos Historical Mechanisms Promoting Chestnut Survival Through Hybridization

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Historical Mechanisms Promoting Chestnut Survival Through Hybridization

Historically, chestnuts have provided food and wood products throughout the ages in both European and Oriental cultures. Chestnuts have saved several civilizations from extinction during famines, wars and natural disasters. Native American chestnuts offered much promise and comfort to the early colonists, but during a blight introduced by the importation of nurseries from Asia, American chestnut trees were nearly eliminated. A few chestnut tree colonies survived in isolated locations, and due to advances in plant breeding, chestnut trees are being reestablished across the country. The original American chestnuts were far superior to all other species in the world in terms of sweet taste and large amounts of timber produced. Foreign species of chestnuts such as Chinese, Japanese and European have been used to embed immunity qualities back into the historical genetic code contained in the delicious American chestnut core.

An early reference to American chestnuts, ‘Castanea dentata’, was given in the seed and tree nursery catalog of John and William Bartram, America’s first nursery catalog which was published in Philadelphia, PA in 1783. Bartram family, explorers and famous American botanists, were close friends of Benjamin Franklin and US presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Bartrams supplied American chestnut trees to the gardens at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the personal gardens of George Washington at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Va. President Jefferson was an avid plant collector and spent endless hours searching for profitable horticultural crops that were commercially viable for American farmers. President Jefferson tried and succeeded in interbreeding and hybridizing different collections of Spanish or European chestnut species, ‘Castanea sativa’. He also made crosses on chestnuts forming hybrid crosses of the European chestnut, ‘Castanea sativa’ and the American chestnut, ‘Castanea dentata’.

Thomas Jefferson is documented to have personally grafted European chestnuts onto American rootstocks, however, it is unclear why he did so, as American chestnuts were more desirable and tasted better than European chestnuts.

In his book, Travels, William Bartram never mentions any encounters or observations of the American chestnut ‘Castanea dentata’, despite his extensive exploration of the Southeastern US, where the trees were growing in considerable numbers in the habitat of their birth. The mystery created by Bartram by not mentioning this very significant inhabitant of the American woods is one that may never be answered. Maps locating Bartram’s famous Philadelphia, Pa. arboretum. and the garden still actively used today as a tourist attraction documented the presence of chestnut goliaths on the border of the garden.

The legendary nuts harvested from the American chestnut had a superior taste and production ability to the European chestnut. These nuts were collected and stored in the shade and coolness of autumn so that the starchy kernel could develop its spicy sweetness. The nuts can be shelled and eaten fresh, or roasted over hot coals to enhance the flavor. A common sight on the streets of New York City or Philadelphia were street vendors with portable stoves roasting fresh chestnuts in cast iron pans to offer for sale to pedestrians. Heavy nut crops in the native forests provided enough food not only for human populations, but also for animals such as bears, deer, squirrels, turkeys, and the now-extinct passenger pigeons.

Chestnuts, due to their 42% starch content, can be ground into a powder without spoiling for long periods and baked into sweet and nutritious cakes. In Korea, chestnuts are used in the diet just as potatoes are used in Western countries.

American chestnut trees were among the largest trees found in the Eastern US, sometimes reaching 17 feet in diameter, large enough to drive a wagon or automobile. These walnut trees were found growing from Maine to Florida and from the east coast to middle America. A few scattered chestnut trees can be found in the western states. The grandeur and grace of this stunningly beautiful tree was highly desirable in estate landscapes. The long white flowers of the cat chestnut became a valuable food crop for the U.S. The tree’s tall, straight trunk was ideal for many uses because it was easily split along the grain for wood and rail fences. The dense wood was strong and extremely resistant to rot, making it perfect for telephone poles, fence posts and other building materials.

The American chestnut’s great gift to the New World that provided food, shelter, shade and timber resources was completely wiped out when the trees fell victim to a fungal infection, ‘Cryphonectria parasitica’, in 1904. Many years earlier, an explorer of USDA plants, Frank Meyer, noticed a fungal disease, later identified as chestnut blight, had entered US ports in 1876 from China and Japan in nursery stock imported from those countries. Luther Burbank, perhaps the world’s greatest plant hybridizer, reported that he imported a number of chestnuts from China and Japan in 1884. A USDA official went before Congress in 1912 after the blight destroyed American chestnut trees growing at the Bronx-Zoo. it and was personally credited for his efforts to stop further debilitating diseases and plagues from being imported into the US by passing the Congressional Plant Quarantine Act.

Following President Thomas Jefferson’s lead in crossing different chestnut species to obtain vigorous hybrids and offspring that could have, within the tree’s genetic material, a built-in disease resistance, the USDA began hybridizing the American chestnut, ‘Castanea dentata, Chinese chestnut, ‘Castanea ‘mollissima’ and Japanese chestnut, ‘Castanea crenata’. Thousands of chestnut hybrids have been obtained, however, the American and Chinese descendants were the most promising, while the Japanese chestnuts were excluded. European genetic varieties of chestnut trees were also removed because they were also affected to some extent by the chestnut blight.

Since hybrid seeds of crossbred chestnut trees were so variable and with such unpredictable germination results were not available, the seed of a selected hybrid tree did not show very promising results towards the establishment of profitable commercial chestnut orchards. The chestnut, an outstanding hybrid selection, was grafted with extreme difficulty, so the USDA was unfortunately forced to abandon its chestnut efforts in 1960.

It should be mentioned that the chestnut blight does not affect the roots of the trees and consequently the shoots arise from the trunks that eventually produce some scattered nuts that can be used to further the research in obtaining immunity in a hybrid progeny of the American chestnut. Castanea dentata.’ Chestnut disease only affects Chinese chestnut trees, ‘Castanea sativa’, in a small superficial way. It became important to recognize that this immune quality could be transmitted to an American chestnut hybrid even when the presence of the Chinese chestnut immunity factor was only one-sixteenth of the final genetic makeup of the hybrids that could be obtained by crossing C. dentata and C. mollissima.

Luther Burbank reported the cross of chestnuts from a gene pool that included the cross of Chinese, Japanese, European (Italian) and American chestnuts to include chinquapin trees. From this genetic mix, he was able to develop a 1 ½ ft tall dwarf chestnut that produced nuts from seed within 6 months of planting. He also managed to produce a chestnut crop from perennial trees that included chestnuts and flowers that were consistently produced month after month. The nuts were a large size of two inches in diameter, each weighing an ounce or more in groups of 6 to 9 nuts per mouthful. In the natural state, the spiny mouths act as armor that protects the nuts from squirrels and birds.

More recent observations by the Italian pathologist Antonio Biraghi have shown that some survivors of European chestnuts, C. sativa, are believed to contain a form of chestnut blight that has been genetically weakened in virulence by an internal virus to the extent that the effect. termed ‘hypovirulence’, it appears to demonstrate that virus-affected chestnut trees have acquired a measure of immunity to the deadly chestnut blight disease. These clones are believed by many plant scientists to be able to confer a new immunity to new hybrid crosses of C. dentata with C. sativa and to cross with the parental genotypes and are being evaluated.

Many chestnut trees are available today from mail order and Internet companies, offering an optimistic and productive future for commercial chestnut tree orchards. Some of these offerings are available through the valuable knowledge and efforts of the US Department of Agriculture and its research facilities.

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