Commonwealth Journal

October 24, 2013

A living legacy

by Bill Mardis
Commonwealth Journal

Bronston —

The familiar Christmas song, written in 1946 and sung by Nat King Cole, is a lingering memory of the magnificent American chestnut tree and sweet moments in a fading past.
Much of the late Arthur Tucker’s life was devoted to recreating the sound of chestnuts crackling at the fireplace, and bringing to another generation pleasant hours beneath canopies of forest giants. The American chestnut early in the 20th century was the most important tree in the forest from Maine to Georgia; from the Piedmont west to Kentucky; and to the Cumberland Mountains and rolling foothills of eastern and southern Pulaski County.
Tucker’s dream of developing a blight-resistant American chestnut tree is one step closer to reality. Some of the 21 survivors of 243 chestnut trees planted five years ago on an acre behind Tucker’s home in Bronston produced chestnuts this past summer.
What a shame he didn’t live to see it! He would have been pleased to know his dream lives on.
Scott Freidhof, wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said the surviving trees at Bronston will be inoculated with blight fungi next spring to see if any are showing resistance to the blight. The best two or three trees will be pollinated in an effort to create the next generation of moderate blight-resistant trees.
Tucker’s passion for developing a blight-free American chestnut tree never faded. A few days before his death in June 2011, Tucker, in a weakened voice, was telling a reporter for the Commonwealth Journal that his then 3-year-old chestnut trees had begun to bloom.
An active member of the Kentucky Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, Tucker repeated his dream of seeing the storied American chestnut tree jutting above forest canopies. His surviving chestnut trees, now 15 to 20 feet tall, are part of an experiment to develop blight-free trees.
The only known survivor of the blight is a stately American chestnut tree in nearby Adair County. The tree, with a diameter of nearly 3 feet, is the largest living American chestnut tree in the United States.
Wildlife depended on the American chestnut’s abundant crop of nuts. Its timber was used for virtually everything including utility poles, fences, railroad ties, shingles, fine furniture and musical instruments.
A lethal fungus, accidentally imported from Asia in 1904, spread rapidly over the chestnut’s range. By 1950, all that remained in the fungi’s wake were huge, ghostlike trunks extending above the forest canopy.
The fungi killed the trees, but not the roots. Sprouts continue to grow from the roots but the blight, surviving in oak trees, takes it toll on young chestnut trees. The fungi do not affect the oaks.
The American Chestnut Foundation, using volunteers like Tucker, have a breeding program under way to produce blight-resistant American chestnut trees.
Because of a soil condition, most of the chestnut trees on Arthur Tucker acre have died from a disease called root rot. Arthur’s brother, Wendell, said he is keeping the chestnuts produced on the surviving trees in a refrigerator and will plant the nuts next spring.