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Future of American chestnut takes root by Zoar Valley with bioengineered trees ; 90 'plantlets' planted; may resist the blight

The future of the mighty American chestnut tree may be sitting in sandy loam atop a hill near Zoar Valley.

But this version of the native American hardwood got its start in a petri dish in Syracuse.

It is hoped that some of the 90 trees planted Thursday on state Department of Environmental Conservation land in Collins will resist the blight that wiped out 4 billion of the trees in Eastern forests by 1950.

"It means there's a future for the American chestnut," said Herbert F. Darling Jr. of Amherst, who has worked to bring back the tree for more than 20 years. "We're hoping. We just don't know. We'll just have to wait and see."

Thursday's planting was the culmination of 21 years of cooperation between the American Chestnut Foundation and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

The first two varieties put into the ground were called Darling 4 and Darling 5 -- named for Darling, president of the foundation's New York State chapter, and his family. They were planted on land donated to the state by the Darling family.

Darling, standing rugged and tall on the hill overseeing the planting, was as responsible as anyone for seeing the project reach this step.

A hunter found an American chestnut tree on Darling's property in Collins about 23 years ago, starting his quest to find a blight-resistant chestnut.

"It was magnificent," he recalled. "It was 80 feet -- right straight up like a spire."

Despite his efforts to save the tree, which included packing the trunk with mud, it succumbed to the blight.

"But it still lives," he said. "Some of these we're planting today are the progeny of that."

The new trees were produced from embryos culled from the nuts of 25 chestnut trees from throughout New York State, including others planted over the years at the Zoar Valley state multiple-use area.

The embryos were infused with a synthetic gene, along with genes from wheat and a spruce tree, all believed to contain material that will help the trees resist blight.

Charles Maynard, a genetics professor at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, called the 6- to 12-inch trees "plantlets," not seedlings, because they did not grow from seeds.

"We have a pipeline where we can start with a little tube of DNA and end up with a tree ready to go in the ground," he said.

Another 50 varieties are in the pipeline, added William Powell, a biotechnology professor at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Powell said it took the trees planted Thursday about two years to make it from the test tube to the ground. More trees were planted Tuesday in Westchester County as part of the program.

Here, the trees were planted near a grove of about 700 chestnut trees planted over the past 10 years off Vail Road. Most are infected with the blight and will not survive. They were planted to preserve the species until a blight-resistant strain can be found.

The 90 bioengineered trees were planted inside a 1.4-acre fenced enclosure but close enough to the other trees to be exposed to the fungus. They will be tested in several years to see if they are resistant.

American chestnuts are fast-growing trees that produce high-quality hardwood, as well as an abundance of food for wildlife, said Bryan Burhans, president and chief executive officer of the American Chestnut Foundation. When healthy, they can grow to 5 feet or more in diameter and 100 feet tall.

New York has the foundation's only biotechnology program aimed at producing a blight-resistant chestnut, Burhans said.

"Even if these are successful, there will be long-term programs to refine," he said.

"It's going to be a long, slow process," Darling said. "This is the first step."

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com