Progress Report: Chestnut Orchard at Penn State University

Early in January, what seems like the distant past, several volunteers came to the greenhouse at the Forest Resource Lab in State College, PA to help planting chestnuts. Over 5,000 seeds were planted. As of April 23, we have over 1,800 seedlings to be screened through the SSA process with inoculations occurring in June. Adapting to the current situation we will also be adding 600 seedlings to the SSA’s that would have been planted into the Arboretum orchards. Screening these 600 seedlings should reduce the number to be planted by 25%-50%.

The orchards are beginning to break dormancy. Over the coming weeks there will be mowing, and other maintenance activities. The orchards are about 75% complete with the latest round of rouging with several thousand stems removed.

Graft breaking dormancy.

This year is the start of an effort to graft American chestnut scion material onto American, hybrid, and other various root stocks to be planted in the Arboretum at Penn State as a new GCO. To date we have approximately 50 grafts with goals of at least 100 grafts this year.

Getting closer: Darling 58

Many of you are already aware that ongoing chestnut restoration research at the State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) involves a transgenic technology in which a  single wheat gene is inserted into an American chestnut. This gene enables the American chestnut to tolerate the fungus that causes the blight, resulting in a tree that is 99.999% American chestnut. Gabriel Popkin, a top notch science writer, took over a year to look at the key issues and the quest to save the American chestnut from extinction.  His article “Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?” appeared in the NY Times on April 30th.

ESF’s breakthough discovery is embodied in the blight tolerant Darling 58 American chestnut.  After years of research and environmental testing, earlier this year, ESF applied to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to allow the Darling 58 tree to be used for restoration plantings outside restricted orchards. USDA/APHIS’s review will include a 60 day public comment period. The comment period will open later this year.  It is open to everyone, yet the regulators will place a great deal of weight on the safety and efficacy of the tree, by focusing on comments from the scientific and technical community, as required by statute.

Jim Searing, PA/NJ Chapter Vice President and a member of the TACF Science and Technology Committee, has been working with others from across TACF to reach out to the scientific community and environmental and scientific organizations who understand the importance of restoring this tree to eastern forests.  As soon as USDA/APHIS opens the public comment period, both TACF and the chapter will be communicating with our members, volunteers, orchard owners and people who have expressed support for our mission with information on how you can participate in the public comment process.

If you have questions, or if you have a scientific background in forests, genomics, or ecology and would like to participate in the public comment period, please email Jim Searing at searing7pa@msn.com