American Chestnuts Planted on Hoosier NF
It was not your ordinary tree planting effort. In both 2011 and 2012 it took several days of site preparation work, the areas were fenced, PVC pipes were driven into the ground where each tree was to be planted, and only then were each of two areas planted. But even at that, the work had only begun for these precious trees which Hoosier’s have waited so long to see return to Indiana’s forests.
It has been a long hard road to bring back the chestnut tree, and the last two years have proven to have been anything but kind to the young seedlings. The fact that any of the young trees have survived are a tribute to the hardiness of the chestnut and the attention given to them by their Hoosier caretakers.
The first area, known as the McKenzie Ridge Site, had been first planted in 2011. All but 16 percent of the trees had died due to the unseasonably wet spring and early summer months of that year. It appears with so much rain in 2011, the seedlings root systems drowned.
American chestnut is a species which grew on ridge tops and once dominated southern Indiana’s forests. At the McKenzie Site, the sparse surviving trees, those who had better drainage in 2011, have a good root system and are growing well. Some are now 12 feet tall in their second year. The chestnut is a tall, fast growing tree.
The Buck Site was planted for the first time with the same assortment of chestnut seedlings as were used in both McKenzie plantings. When the trees were planted at both sites the weather was hot and it has stayed hot. Temperatures have stayed regularly in the 90s and often over 100 degrees. Since the trees have been planted in early May, the sites never received any rain through early July.
Hoosier Silviculturist Chris Thornton has worked with Jim McKenna from Forest Service Northern Research Station’s Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center to arrange for the plantings. Thornton said trees on both sites had been given every opportunity to do well, but Nature keeps throwing them curve balls. The trees were planted in a fenced enclosure to keep out deer and minimize damage from wildlife. They will have herbicides applied as needed to control undesirable competition. But then this year came with the heat and the drought. “We couldn’t just let them wither and die in this heat after losing so many last year, so we had to try to save them,” said Thornton.
The trees are planted in the middle of the Forest. “We didn’t have hydrants nearby, so we had to come up with a way to get water to the trees,” said Thornton. He enlisted the help of Ryan Otto and the Hoosier’s fire crews. Otto agreed to use the opportunity as a fire training exercise. With the fire crew’s assistance, porta-tanks were set up and filled with water, and hose lays were put out to the trees. Thornton said they tried to buy sprinklers but found with the drought there were few sprinkler to be had in local stores. The few they were able to find, were losing too much water to evaporation, so they went back to just watering the trees with a hose.
“In some cases we were too late,” said Thornton. He said at the Buck site, the mortality may be 40 percent from the heat and the drought. McKenzie seemed to be doing better. They put 4-5 gallons of water per tree every other week. He hopes to get the seedlings through the drought to put them on a solid footing.
Thornton explained the planting areas were developed as part of a stewardship contract. The McKenzie site had been a timber sale so was heavily covered with tops from the timber sale which were bucked up into smaller pieces so planters could move through the site and plant the trees on a pre-determined grid pattern. The Buck site was easier to plant since most of the logging debris had been removed.
McKenna designed the plantings and secured the seedlings to test the resistance of the blight resistant American chestnut seedlings in a forest environment in their native range. Some of the seedlings came from Virginia so they are also looking at how well adapted these seedlings are to southern Indiana.
The plantings consisted of:
• blight resistant American chestnut trees (genetically 15/16th American chestnut and 1/16 Chinese chestnut)
• pure American chestnut trees
• Chinese chestnut trees
• Native oaks around the edges
The Chinese chestnut varieties served as “controls” to compare performance with the blight resistant American chestnut. The pure American chestnut will also provide performance comparison. The oak planting will provide species competition data. According to Thornton the Chinese chestnuts will be removed before flowering to prevent cross-pollination with the blight resistant seedling or local seed sources.