American Chestnut Orchard
Rolling Hills American Chestnut Germplasm Conservation Orchard
As the Rolling Hills Park Master Plan was being developed, Peters Township officials tasked the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) with planting trees that once were familiar but now threatened - such as American Elm, American Chestnut, or White Ash. As a result, EQB and PT volunteers planted 40 pure American Chestnut Tree seedlings in what is known as the Rolling Hills American Chestnut Germplasm Conservation Orchard (GCO).
Why American Chestnut? In the Appalachians and especially in Pennsylvania, this tree dominated the forest. One of every four hardwood trees was chestnut. The tree was highly valued: its fruit provided food for man, livestock and game; its bark provided tannin for the curing of leather; its wood was strong, light and rot resistant for housing, furniture, cabinets, and fences. It grew as a giant, over 100-feet tall and 10-feet in diameter! In the early 1900's, an Asian fungus - Chestnut Blight, accidentally introduced - quickly killed adult trees, eliminating them from the forest landscape, making them what is termed "functionally extinct." Unique to chestnut, roots from these old trees still send saplings up over 100 years later, but the new trees usually die before reaching maturity.
EQB contacted the PA/NJ Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) for assistance, to be part of the nationwide initiative to bring this tree "back from the dead." Several years ago, researchers in Syracuse, NY developed "Darling 58," a blight resistant chestnut that is currently under review by the EPA and USDA. Per Foundation and researcher planning, Darling 58 tree pollen will be used to pollinate pure American Chestnut Tree flowers. The resulting nuts should produce trees which share this blight resistance. Our Township's GCO will essentially be a nursery preserving varied genetic diversity - brood stock if you will - of trees that produce flowers to be pollinated by Darling 58 trees. These flowers will produce nuts that should bear blight resistance to enable further seedlings, thus continuing this effort.
EQB coordinated and brought Administration/Parks & Recreation/Public Works together to dedicate a 100-foot rectangular plot of land in the Park, near the upper reaches of the trail connecting the Park with the Arrowhead Trail. Enabled by the hard work and coordination of Mr. Jay Mizia, Public Works laid out a planting grid, applied herbicide, and constructed a 7-foot high deer enclosure fence to provide sanctuary for these seedlings.
On Saturday, June 3, 2023, 40 seedlings provided by the PA/NJ Chapter of TACF at Penn State were planted by EQB members, PT High School students (from the SAFE/Horticulture Club), community volunteers and TACF officers. Five seedlings from eight "mother trees" were planted in a 5x8 grid and catalogued. The "mother trees" came from several states - WI, OH, PA, NJ, and NY to preserve genetic diversity, and to see which trees grow best given our PT soil and weather conditions. As these trees mature, growth will be assessed to aid in ongoing research. When these trees flower, which should occur in 7-10 years, TACF scientists will supervise the pollination and nut harvest. It is expected that our trees will succumb to the blight and die.
What can you do? For starters, be a frequent visitor to this chestnut orchard as the trees grow, being aware of how each row of trees comparatively responds to the local growing conditions and the fungus blight. Visit the TACF website for detailed chestnut information and video descriptions. Lastly, please consider joining the PA/NJ Chapter to see what part you can play in restoring the American Chestnut Tree to its native home.