Chestnuts, Christmas and tree disease linked forever through song

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By Jeff Burbrink | PREVIEW Columnist

I heard the classic Christmas song by Nat King Cole officially titled “The Christmas Song,” more frequently known as “Merry Christmas to You,” on the radio today. It got me thinking — have I ever had a chestnut that was roasted on an open fire? I don’t honestly know.

American chestnuts were nearly wiped out in the last century when some imported Japanese chestnuts, planted in New York, spread an exotic fungus to our continent. Once a major forest species in the eastern U.S., billions of the trees died. By 1950, the trees were nearly gone, except a few scrubby trees sprouting up from root systems, similar to what we see when ash trees have been infested by the emerald ash borer.

Efforts to breed resistant stock have been ongoing for years by the USDA, several universities and the American Chestnut Foundation. Most of the efforts involve crossing the America chestnuts with chestnuts from the region where the cryphonectria fungus is native. Since it takes years for a tree to reach maturity, these efforts are very slow and if the hybrid is not fully resistant, it can feel like years have been wasted.

Other efforts to create resistance to the fungus involve transferring genes from resistant plants to the native chestnut. This method can speed up the process to develop resistant varieties, but it raises question in some minds about unintended consequences that could arise. Either way, through the traditional method of crossing of pollen or through the use of genetic transfer technology like CRISPR, the genetics of the original species get changed. One method just takes longer. Protocols are in place, using either method, to observe the plants before they are released into the wild.

As these modified plants inch their way to marketplace, I hope that someday I will be able to enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of some chestnuts roasted over a fire.

For more information about chestnuts and the efforts to restore this favorite of trees, visit the American Chestnut Foundation at acf.org.

Jeff Burbrink is an Extension educator with Purdue Extension Elkhart County.

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