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Restoring Our Roots, One American Chestnut Tree at a Time

Posted on 04/11/2018 by Jean Sexton

When George Vanderbilt first visited Asheville, North Carolina, in 1888 and began envisioning his private estate, the wooded slopes of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains included vast numbers of American chestnut trees

The edible nut of the chestnut tree in its spiny burr covering

Seeds from one of Biltmore's hybrid chestnuts encased in a spiny, protective "burr"

History of the American chestnut tree

Known as an all-purpose tree, American chestnuts grew quickly to great size. The wood was strong and resistant to rotting, making it a prized material for foundations, fencing, and railroad ties while the edible nut was an important source of food for cattle, hogs, and wildlife.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) struck the American chestnut tree, effectively destroying the species as a source of food and lumber. The blight doesn’t kill the tree’s underground root system, but once an American chestnut sprouts from an existing stump, it succumbs to blight before it matures into a tree.

​​Scaly, thickened bark on this branch shows evidence of chestnut blight

Restoring our roots

In 1997, Biltmore partnered with the American Chestnut Foundation (AFC) to provide a test site for hybrid chestnuts as part of the AFC’s work to restore this heritage tree. The AFC collected pollen and seeds from the estate and crossed the genetic material with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees. The seedlings were planted on a sunny slope near Deerpark Restaurant.

“In a way, we’re restoring our roots,” said Jason Mull, Landscaping Supervisor for many of the outlying historic areas of the estate, including the Approach Road and the chestnut plantings. “This project has a natural tie to the importance Vanderbilt and Olmsted placed on landscaping and managed forestry

Jason Mull points out one of three original hybrid chestnut trees at Biltmore

Jason Mull indicates one of the original hybrid chestnut trees planted at Biltmore in 1997

The project continues

Jason has been involved with the chestnut project since the beginning and has now cared for several generations of trees. The test site includes a mix of American-Chinese hybrids plus full Chinese chestnuts that act as a control group. 

“There are only three hybrid chestnuts left from the original planting,” Jason said. “They’ve grown pretty well in the last 20 years. They do show effects from the blight, but it hasn’t killed them.”

According to Jason, some of the more recent plantings carry a much higher percentage of American chestnut DNA than the originals because the hybrids have served their purpose in helping increase resistance to the blight. 

Students from a local charter school help plant new hybrid chestnuts at Biltmore in 2013

Planting a legacy

“We’re continuing to work with the AFC to establish another planting site on the estate—preferably in the kind of wooded area that chestnuts tend to prefer,” Jason said. “If our trees continue to do well over time, that’s a wonderful legacy to leave for future generations.”

Featured blog image: Jason Mull and a student from a local charter school plant a hybrid chestnut tree near Deerpark Restaurant in 2013

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