Friday, December 21, 2012

The Once and Future Chestnut

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…"

Dr. Larry Grand on chestnut. August 2004.
Photo: Caroline Vernia
I can count on the burned fingers of one hand the number of times I've eaten chestnuts, but for some of you they may be an important part of your holidays. A century ago – back the last time folks were dating their letters 12/21/12 – the American chestnut, Castanea dentata, was one of the most prominent trees of the eastern North American forest, from New England down the Appalachians and areas to the immediate west and south (range map). Apart from the prized wood, these trees provided nuts that served as food for humans and wildlife. There was a problem, though. From the area around New York City a blight was spreading. By the time Mel Tormé and Bob Wells had penned "The Christmas Song" in 1944, most of the native range of the American chestnut had been affected by the disease. Now most of the chestnuts are gone from their original range. The picture at left was taken in 2004 and shows retired NCSU forest pathologist Larry Grand standing on the remains of a once great chestnut tree (I don't actually know the cause of death in this case.)

Fruiting bodies of Cryphonectria parasitica
on the trunk of a chestnut tree. October 2006.
Photo: Marc Cubeta
So what happened? This was another case of an introduced fungus causing widespread destruction on a plant species that had not evolved resistance to it. See the discussion of coevolution in our Dec 3rd blog, if you missed it. The fungus Cryphonectria parasitica had been brought accidenetally from Asia on seeds or seedlings. This fungus causes branch and trunk cankers that eventually girdle and kill the tree. Of all the tree species susceptible to C. parasitica, the American chestnut is the most seriously affected. The fungus reproduces by spores formed in orange-colored fruiting bodies on the bark (picture at right). Two types of spores are produced: one that spreads by wind and one that is transported by birds, insects, or water splash. When spores reach a wound on a chestnut tree they germinate, and the fungus infects. According to information provided by the American Chestnut Foundation, it takes only 2 to 10 years for a mature chestnut tree to die. For more information on the disease process, see the March/April 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation. 

Unfortunately this sort of scenario has repeated itself with increasing frequency and rapidity as efficient transportation systems have allowed us to move plants and their diseases around the globe. In October 2011, the disease called "box blight" was first found in North America. Within months it had been found in nine US states and one Canadian province, and it hasn't stopped spreading. This has implications not only for the nursery industry, but for the cut greens industry this time of year. For more information about this threat specific to boxwood and Pachysandra, see Dr. Kelly Ivors' box blight information pages.

Chestnuts. Western NC. October 2006.
Photo: Marc Cubeta
Returning to the chestnut trees, it is an interesting fact that the roots are not killed by the fungus, so new sprouts can repeatedly develop. Eventually, though, this new growth succumbs to the blight. Back in October of 2006, one of our professors came across a chestnut tree in the North Carolina mountains that had grown large enough to bear nuts, though it was clearly infected with chestnut blight (picture at left). I suspect it is gone by now.

Concerted efforts to bring the chestnut back have been going on for some time. Different strategies have been attempted, the most important of which is to cross the native species with resistant species, principally Castanea mollissima, the Chinese chestnut. Another approach was to inoculate trees with a weak (“hypovirulent”) form of the fungus that prevented the deadlier version from killing them. The main reason these strains are weak? They themselves have a viral infection! The 2004 Annual Review of Phytopathology contains an analysis of this situation. (For those unfamiliar with the term, "phytopathology" is the study of plant diseases.) Sadly, one of the hurdles faced by growers trying to re-introduce the chestnut is yet another disease: root rot caused by the fungus-like organism Phytophthora cinnamomi.

Wishing a safe and enjoyable holiday season to all our readers from the NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic! Note that we will be closed December 24th through January 1st, but looking forward to serving you in 2013.