UNIVERSITY PARK — Taking a midday break from the office, Matt Fedorko went to work.
He slid the American chestnut sapling out of a black plastic tube. Dark potting soil clinging to the roots crumbled in his fingers as he placed the tree in a hole, filled in dirt and straw and patted around the slender trunk.
And the American Chestnut Foundation was one tree closer to bringing back an icon.
Fedorko and other volunteers Monday planted American chestnut hybrids in an orchard owned by the State College-based Pennsylvania/New Jersey chapter of the foundation. On Penn State land, they filled in a grove of 150 trees, part of the foundation’s efforts to breed American chestnut hybrids resistant to a fatal blight more than a century old.
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For 30 years, the foundation has been dreaming of the day when the giants of yore, which once crowded the land from Maine to Georgia, can withstand the blight, grow to maturity and resume their majestic place in nature.
Fedorko, who works at Penn State coordinating a solar training program for vocational school instructors and gardens for a hobby, liked getting outdoors to further a noble cause.
A West Virginia native, he remembers a chestnut stump, on his parents’ property, that kept growing doomed sprouts — a sad coda for a titan. The American chestnut, he said, “was the main tree in the Appalachian biosphere before the blight,” yielding strong wood for barns and homes and food for wild animals, livestock and people.
“It’s a missing piece of our history,” Fedorko said. “It was a great loss.”
The American Chestnut Foundation isn’t alone in its mission. Other groups, such as the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation, and scientists are pursuing the restoration of the tree through different means.
In the foundation’s case, it’s cross-breeding American chestnut hybrids with Chinese chestnuts, the original carriers of the blight. Each stage in the six-generation program has been culled for hardiness and other traits, then scientifically rebred toward the goal of producing a chestnut that lives past five to seven years.
“We want it to look like an American chestnut but have the resistance of a Chinese chestnut,” said Stephanie Bailey, the local foundation chapter administrator and orchard manager.
At the Penn State orchard — one of about 150 research and demonstration orchards the foundation maintains in Pennsylvania — Bailey supervised volunteers toiling on a hillside plot to plant fifth-generation chestnuts.
Each of the trees represented different genetic combinations. But only two will survive to pass along their genes.
When they reach about 7, the trees will be inoculated with a weak strain of the blight. Those that respond poorly will meet a chainsaw blade.
After survivors receive a stronger dose, the winnowing process repeats — until the best two specimens remain.
Statistically, one out of 64 trees end up with the optimal traits, Bailey said.
“It’s a long process, but the exciting thing is we’re now getting the results we’re looking for,” she said.
The ACF already is evaluating sixth-generation trees planted in the wild, and is close to producing blight-resistant specimens, said Sara Fitzsimmons, who works out of Penn State as the foundation’s northcentral region science coordinator.
“We’re definitely making progress,” said Fitzsimmons, a research technologist in Penn State’s ecosystem science and management department. “There’s no doubt about it.”
To increase survival odds, foundation researchers try for chestnut hybrids suited to regional climates. At Penn State, for example, the fledgling trees are bred from central and western Pennsylvania parents that leaf out slower than southern cousins. Fitzsimmons recalls the fate of Philadelphia-area chestnut seedlings planted far to the northwest.
“They just didn’t make it,” she said. “They got zapped.”
Complicating researchers’ task, American chestnuts reintroduced today face more foreign diseases and lethal invasive plant species than their pre-blight ancestors did in the 1800s.
Still, though the foundation doesn’t have 80-foot tall chestnuts yet, Fitzsimmons said the blight resistance she’s seeing now leave her “cautiously optimistic” that day will come.
“We have a lot more work ahead of us,” she said.
Tyler Kulfan’s glad to be lending a hand.
Kulfan, 22, came to State College from Eastern University in Philadelphia to work as a summer intern for the foundation. A senior majoring in environmental science and history, he became fascinated with the American chestnut and its decades-long demise.
“It was one of the most prevalent hardwood species east of the Appalachians,” he said.
By 1950, as Kulfan knows, adult American chestnuts had largely vanished. But the wood’s reputation endured. Kulfan knows this, also, from his stepfather, a carpenter and cabinetmaker who prizes chestnut wood from old barns for its durability.
Looking for a summer job, Kulfan discovered the foundation. The prospect of helping restore an economically and culturally important species appealed to him, and he’s excited that the ACF is “on the cusp of having a blight-resistant chestnut.”
“We’re finally seeing the fruits of our labor,” he said.
Bailey often sees volunteers throwing themselves into chestnut planting. Some younger, environmentally conscious people seek the satisfaction of restoring a species and helping the planet, she said.
For others, the work is more personal.
“A lot of older volunteers are from a generation that can remember the trees,” Bailey said. “They’re very passionate about bringing them back.”