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Group reaches up to save American chestnut trees
Monday, November 25, 2002
BY DIANA BOWLEY OF THE NEWS STAFF - DOVER-FOXCROFT - A group of local people want to ensure there always will be chestnuts to roast over an open fire.

For the past seven years, members of the local chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation have given Mother Nature a boost by pollinating by hand the flowers of American chestnut trees in the state and collecting the nuts to grow into seedlings.

It is a definite love for the great tree that prompts Iris Snowfire of Dover-Foxcroft, Ron Locke of Sebec and others to devote time to make sure the species continues in perpetuity.

Snowfire, a board member of the Maine foundation, said she first learned about the American chestnut tree during a conference in Massachusetts. "The speaker described the most fantastic tree, and I wanted to get involved with a foundation working to restore it," she said.

"It was as if you wanted to pick all the best features - it was in this tree," Snowfire said during a recent interview. To emphasize her point, she said the tree can grow 80 to 100 feet tall; the lumber produced from the tree is rot-resistant and is excellent for furniture making and building construction; it produces a cash crop of nuts every year; the trees begin producing the nuts within five to six years of being planted; American Indians used the bark and leaves for medicinal purposes; bees love its flowers, and humans and a host of animals enjoy the nuts, which are low in fat.

"The tree is so determined to be the best tree in the forest, it does every thing it can," Snowfire said.

At one time, the American chestnut dominated much of the Eastern forests and dotted the countryside from Maine to Georgia. About one in four trees was a chestnut, Snowfire said. But in 1902, a quick-moving exotic fungus arrived in the country either on lumber or trees from China. That fungus destroyed millions of acres of trees, leaving dead but still-standing trunks, according to Snowfire.

Through genetics and plant pathology, foundation scientists are now crossbreeding the Chinese chestnut tree, which is resistant to the blight, with the few American chestnuts that survived. And people like Snowfire are playing a role in the scientific effort.

"We're [the American Chestnut Foundation] certainly moving forward with the breeding program," Snowfire said.

In addition, some years the members pollinate American chestnuts in the wild with Chinese chestnut pollen. But it will take another 10 years before blight-resistant trees are sold to the public.

Today, there are about 200 known American chestnut trees in existence in Maine, she said. Six of them are in the Dover-Foxcroft region, one of which is about 40 years old and is on the Mayo Regional Hospital campus.

"This is the northeast-most region of the natural range of the chestnuts," according to Snowfire.

Of the local chestnuts, foundation members must pollinate four because they are isolated. The trees cannot self-pollinate, but each tree produces male and female flowers. Stands with more than one chestnut depend on wind-borne pollen from another tree within 200 yards.

To pollinate the trees, foundation members gather male chestnut flowers in mid-July and take them to other chestnut trees where the male flowers are rubbed against the female flowers. The female flowers, which look like minute pineapples, grow on the tips of branches. To reach the towering heights, sometimes 50 feet above the ground, volunteers work from lift machinery.

When the flowers on a limb have been pollinated, the limb is enclosed in a special white bag. A mesh bag is then placed over the white bag to keep squirrels and birds at bay.

In late September or early October, the nuts, which are encased in a prickly bur, are collected by glove-clad volunteers. The harvested nuts are refrigerated until April, when they are planted in peat pots to grow into seedlings. The seedlings then are planted in June in breeding orchards in the state.

Snowfire said 250 chestnuts were harvested from the tree on the hospital campus this year, 800 nuts were harvested from a tree in Dexter and 1,300 nuts were collected in Sebec.

The foundation is always on the lookout for more American chestnut trees in the wild. Snowfire said the American chestnut should not be confused with the horse chestnut, often known as the buckeye. The difference, she said, is found in the leaves, the burs and the size of the nuts.

For more information or to report the location of an American chestnut tree, call Snowfire at 564-0831.
"This content originally appeared as a copyrighted article in the Monday, November 25, 2002 edition of the Bangor Daily NEWS and is used here with permission."

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