Chestnut Tree Foundation Moves HQ to Nelson

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Warren Laws, president the American Chestnet Foundation. Photo: Mary Cunningham.

The Virginia Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) is currently moving their headquarters from Marshall, Virginia to the Rockfish Valley Community Center. 

Virginia Chapter President Warren Laws, who lives just west of White Hall, has been directing the state chapter for 13 years. “I first became aware of the American chestnut tree when I took my grandfather to some property I purchased [in New Hampshire]. He found a chestnut seedling-stump. He was very excited and when I brought him home, he began telling everyone about this find. I remember him telling everyone that the chestnuts are coming back. This made his whole week. I wondered why he was so excited about this. I found out many years later.”

The mighty American chestnut tree was a fast-growing hardwood known in the U.S. as the King of the Forest. They were considered the perfect tree and played a vital role in American culture. The giant trees grew throughout the Appalachian forests, some more than 100 feet tall and 14 feet wide. Chestnut wood was easier to split end-to-end than other hardwoods and made rot-resistant split-rail fence, barns, cabins, furniture, and shingles. The straight trees, branch-free for the lower 50 feet, were used for telegraph poles and railroad ties. Trees also produced a cash crop and fodder for pigs and the bark made useful tannins, leaving no waste. 

In 1904, a parasitic fungus of airborne spores began entering the bark, causing the blight that destroyed virtually all American chestnut trees.  A native Virginian and mycologist, Dr. William Murrill, isolated and described the fungus responsible, which he named Diaporthe parasitica. 

Efforts to restore the American chestnut by hybrid crossbreeding with Chinese chestnuts have had limited success. Improved blight tolerance through biotechnology and genetic engineering is the most advanced method now under study, creating a transgenic species with a wheat gene. Testing of this approach is ongoing under government approval.

In Nelson County, a breeding orchard with over five hundred trees provides a pollination-controlled harvest to advance hybrids. Orchards are also in Albemarle in Sugar Hollow and near Innisfree. Tall fences to stop deer are critical and trees require well-drained soil with a pH between 4.5-6.5. Blue Ridge School in Greene County and The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institution in Front Royal also have germplasm conservation orchards where trees are grown using hand pollination with transgenic pollen.

The non-profit Virginia Chapter offers basic membership for $40 per year to support the cause. Members receive a subscription to Chestnut magazine and a newsletter in Spring and Fall. For more information, visit acf.org/va. 

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