More than a century ago, the mighty giants of the forest began to fall.
The valuable, vigorous American chestnut tree, prized for its strong, light wood and its nutritious nuts, was infected with a blight brought over by imported Chinese chestnuts.
Now, the science of genetics may bring back the tree. And the first indications of the tree's possible resurgence are growing -- slender, barely 5 feet tall, but healthy -- in a fenced test field in Zoar Valley.
This weekend, some 200 scientists, arborists and tree-lovers will gather in Java Center for the 28th annual meeting of the American Chestnut Foundation in Beaver Hollow Conference Center.
The conference, which is open to the public by ticket, will feature Saturday afternoon tours of the William White Orchard in Zoar Valley, which is home to 1,700 trees from more than 30 American chestnut lines. Last year, transgenic trees developed at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse were also planted at the site.
In the transgenic trees, a small amount of blight-resistant genes is mixed with American chestnut tree genes. The DEC field contains several types of genetically mixed trees, as well as pure Chinese chestnut trees and pure American chestnut trees.
"We've already lost two little ones," as expected, pure American chestnuts with no blight-resistant genes, says Herbert J. Darling of Amherst. Darling, now retired from the construction company started by his father and operated by his son-in-law, became interested in the tree in the late 1980s when a hunter discovered a tall chestnut that had survived the blight on Darling's Collins property. Despite Darling's efforts to save it, the tree died five years after it was found, but its offspring have been preserved and planted.
"Our main focus for the last 28 years has been to breed a chestnut that is essentially 94 percent American, but retains enough of the Chinese chestnut to have blight-resistance, and then crossbreed them to make them very, very hardy," says Paul Franklin, director of communications of the American Chestnut Foundation.
"The chestnut was one of the most important trees in the eastern United States, and it was one of the most populous," says Franklin. "It comprised about one tree in four from Maine to Georgia and from the Chesapeake to the Ohio Valley. It certainly grew in upstate New York."
In 1904, large volumes of Chinese chestnuts began to be imported in New York, and they soon spread a blight that killed American chestnuts. The blight "was 100 percent fatal" to trees that contracted it, says Franklin, "and from 1904 to 1955, 4 billion trees died. It's hard to imagine how important that was."
Genes from trees that were not exposed to the blight or seemed to be somewhat resistant are used in some 300 breeding and test orchards.
"Our goal is to make forest-hardy chestnuts that will survive in the wild on their own," said Franklin.
The conference will include workshops on chestnut identification, growing the trees, and pest and disease management, as well as tips on photographing chestnuts. Also planned are scientific presentations on the state of chestnut restoration, disease and research, and a presentation on the progress of SUNY-ESF's chestnut biotechnology program.
Public tickets for the entire conference cost $180 per person and $300 per couple. Day passes are $65 per person on Saturday, the day of the orchard tour, and $45 on Sunday. Both day passes include breakfast and lunch. For more information or to buy tickets, go to the group's website, acf.org.