Chestnuts not roasting on open fires

MILFORD – "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …" goes the old Christmas song, but most people living today have never enjoyed the sweet nuts from the American chestnut tree.

The trees once covered the forests of the Northeastern United States from Maine to Georgia and over to the Ohio River Valley. Gathering and roasting them was an important fall ritual for Native Americans and for settlers of early America. They were also a dependable and nutritious food for wildlife.

And the giant tree species – it grew up to 100 feet – was good for much more. Considered the most useful tree in the world, the American chestnut and its beautiful, strong, rot-resistant wood was used for furniture, fence posts, siding and bridge timbers.

Then came what some call the biggest ecological disaster of the 20th century, the chestnut blight. It was caused by a fungus from Asia first discovered in New York City in 1904. At least 3 billion trees died by 1950.

Curtis Laffin, of Hudson, remembers when he was a boy in the 1940s and his father took him to a hill in Harvard, Mass., to show him one of the last living American chestnut trees.

"It didn’t mean much to me," he told an audience at the Wadleigh Memorial Library recently.

But later, he pursued a career in the natural sciences – and "I kept reading about the American chestnut," and its importance to U.S. forests, he said.

Laffin, who is retired from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and served on the Hudson Conservation Commission, is now part of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of a blight-resistant tree.

In Appalachia, the chestnut had been the dominant forest tree. Now the foundation is working with a regional reforestation initiative to plant pure American chestnuts and blight-resistant chestnut trees to help heal land damaged by coal mining.

Closer to home, at Beaver Brook Association in Hollis and in the Shieling Forest in Peterborough, there are chestnut tree orchards where American chestnuts are bred with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts.

In a process called "backcross breeding," trees that show the best blight resistance, as well as American chestnut characteristics, are bred with other native American chestnuts.

There are about 270 trees in the Hollis orchard. They are small, planted about four years ago, and looked after by Peter Smith, Beaver Brook’s natural resource manager. They are monitored by the foundation.

"Some are producing nuts already," Smith said.

New Hampshire’s wild chestnuts have been gone for more than 80 years, although not completely. The blight only travels up the trees and doesn’t affect roots, which can survive for decades. If they’re exposed to sunlight, the roots send up shoots that live for a few years.

There are many of these little, and apparently doomed, trees in Monson Village, off Federal Hill Road, Laffin said.

Hudson was home to one of the rarest examples of a long-gone tree, but it died in 2011. There is also said to be one in a Milford subdivision.

In his slide presentation, Laffin showed what has been lost. There are photos of a bed made from chestnut wood in the Robert Frost house in Derry, and an antique refrigerator, musical instruments and tool chests made from chestnut wood.

The Mountainview Research Farm in Virginia, the center of the United States breeding program, sends pollen to New Hampshire for hand-pollination of trees.

Laffin showed slides of the work being done and explained some of the research to create genetic and physical maps of the chestnut genome.

There are 17 foundation chapters, and 16 of them follow the backcross breeding program.

But one, at the State University of New York, has been taking place for 14 years in a laboratory where scientists are looking for a resistant gene.

It will be several generations of backcross breeding before seeds will be planted in the wild, so the project takes patience.

One of Laffin’s slides shows this anonymous Greek proverb: "Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

For more information about chestnut tree restoration efforts, visit www.acf.org or email shelterwoodsystems@comcast.net.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

Chestnuts not roasting on open fires

MILFORD – "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …" goes the old Christmas song, but most people living today have never enjoyed the sweet nuts from the American chestnut tree.

The trees once covered the forests of the Northeastern United States from Maine to Georgia and over to the Ohio River Valley. Gathering and roasting them was an important fall ritual for Native Americans and for settlers of early America. They were also a dependable and nutritious food for wildlife.

And the giant tree species – it grew up to 100 feet – was good for much more. Considered the most useful tree in the world, the American chestnut and its beautiful, strong, rot-resistant wood was used for furniture, fence posts, siding and bridge timbers.

Then came what some call the biggest ecological disaster of the 20th century, the chestnut blight. It was caused by a fungus from Asia first discovered in New York City in 1904. At least 3 billion trees died by 1950.

Curtis Laffin, of Hudson, remembers when he was a boy in the 1940s and his father took him to a hill in Harvard, Mass., to show him one of the last living American chestnut trees.

"It didn’t mean much to me," he told an audience at the Wadleigh Memorial Library recently.

But later, he pursued a career in the natural sciences – and "I kept reading about the American chestnut," and its importance to U.S. forests, he said.

Laffin, who is retired from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and served on the Hudson Conservation Commission, is now part of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of a blight-resistant tree.

In Appalachia, the chestnut had been the dominant forest tree. Now the foundation is working with a regional reforestation initiative to plant pure American chestnuts and blight-resistant chestnut trees to help heal land damaged by coal mining.

Closer to home, at Beaver Brook Association in Hollis and in the Shieling Forest in Peterborough, there are chestnut tree orchards where American chestnuts are bred with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts.

In a process called "backcross breeding," trees that show the best blight resistance, as well as American chestnut characteristics, are bred with other native American chestnuts.

There are about 270 trees in the Hollis orchard. They are small, planted about four years ago, and looked after by Peter Smith, Beaver Brook’s natural resource manager. They are monitored by the foundation.

"Some are producing nuts already," Smith said.

New Hampshire’s wild chestnuts have been gone for more than 80 years, although not completely. The blight only travels up the trees and doesn’t affect roots, which can survive for decades. If they’re exposed to sunlight, the roots send up shoots that live for a few years.

There are many of these little, and apparently doomed, trees in Monson Village, off Federal Hill Road, Laffin said.

Hudson was home to one of the rarest examples of a long-gone tree, but it died in 2011. There is also said to be one in a Milford subdivision.

In his slide presentation, Laffin showed what has been lost. There are photos of a bed made from chestnut wood in the Robert Frost house in Derry, and an antique refrigerator, musical instruments and tool chests made from chestnut wood.

The Mountainview Research Farm in Virginia, the center of the United States breeding program, sends pollen to New Hampshire for hand-pollination of trees.

Laffin showed slides of the work being done and explained some of the research to create genetic and physical maps of the chestnut genome.

There are 17 foundation chapters, and 16 of them follow the backcross breeding program.

But one, at the State University of New York, has been taking place for 14 years in a laboratory where scientists are looking for a resistant gene.

It will be several generations of backcross breeding before seeds will be planted in the wild, so the project takes patience.

One of Laffin’s slides shows this anonymous Greek proverb: "Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

For more information about chestnut tree restoration efforts, visit www.acf.org or email shelterwoodsystems@comcast.net.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

Chestnuts not roasting on open fires

MILFORD – "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …" goes the old Christmas song, but most people living today have never enjoyed the sweet nuts from the American chestnut tree.

The trees once covered the forests of the Northeastern United States from Maine to Georgia and over to the Ohio River Valley. Gathering and roasting them was an important fall ritual for Native Americans and for settlers of early America. They were also a dependable and nutritious food for wildlife.

And the giant tree species – it grew up to 100 feet – was good for much more. Considered the most useful tree in the world, the American chestnut and its beautiful, strong, rot-resistant wood was used for furniture, fence posts, siding and bridge timbers.

Then came what some call the biggest ecological disaster of the 20th century, the chestnut blight. It was caused by a fungus from Asia first discovered in New York City in 1904. At least 3 billion trees died by 1950.

Curtis Laffin, of Hudson, remembers when he was a boy in the 1940s and his father took him to a hill in Harvard, Mass., to show him one of the last living American chestnut trees.

"It didn’t mean much to me," he told an audience at the Wadleigh Memorial Library recently.

But later, he pursued a career in the natural sciences – and "I kept reading about the American chestnut," and its importance to U.S. forests, he said.

Laffin, who is retired from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and served on the Hudson Conservation Commission, is now part of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of a blight-resistant tree.

In Appalachia, the chestnut had been the dominant forest tree. Now the foundation is working with a regional reforestation initiative to plant pure American chestnuts and blight-resistant chestnut trees to help heal land damaged by coal mining.

Closer to home, at Beaver Brook Association in Hollis and in the Shieling Forest in Peterborough, there are chestnut tree orchards where American chestnuts are bred with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts.

In a process called "backcross breeding," trees that show the best blight resistance, as well as American chestnut characteristics, are bred with other native American chestnuts.

There are about 270 trees in the Hollis orchard. They are small, planted about four years ago, and looked after by Peter Smith, Beaver Brook’s natural resource manager. They are monitored by the foundation.

"Some are producing nuts already," Smith said.

New Hampshire’s wild chestnuts have been gone for more than 80 years, although not completely. The blight only travels up the trees and doesn’t affect roots, which can survive for decades. If they’re exposed to sunlight, the roots send up shoots that live for a few years.

There are many of these little, and apparently doomed, trees in Monson Village, off Federal Hill Road, Laffin said.

Hudson was home to one of the rarest examples of a long-gone tree, but it died in 2011. There is also said to be one in a Milford subdivision.

In his slide presentation, Laffin showed what has been lost. There are photos of a bed made from chestnut wood in the Robert Frost house in Derry, and an antique refrigerator, musical instruments and tool chests made from chestnut wood.

The Mountainview Research Farm in Virginia, the center of the United States breeding program, sends pollen to New Hampshire for hand-pollination of trees.

Laffin showed slides of the work being done and explained some of the research to create genetic and physical maps of the chestnut genome.

There are 17 foundation chapters, and 16 of them follow the backcross breeding program.

But one, at the State University of New York, has been taking place for 14 years in a laboratory where scientists are looking for a resistant gene.

It will be several generations of backcross breeding before seeds will be planted in the wild, so the project takes patience.

One of Laffin’s slides shows this anonymous Greek proverb: "Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."

For more information about chestnut tree restoration efforts, visit www.acf.org or email shelterwoodsystems@comcast.net.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.