The Story of the Kelley Tree

by Sara Fitzsimmons, Director of Restoration TACF

In June, long-time member Tracey Coulter worked with her friend and colleague Ellen Roane to track down the status of the Kelley tree in Camp Hill, PA. Along with the Ort and Joliet trees, the Kelley tree was one of the first trees used in the Pa Chapters breeding program. Several of the progeny from this tree continue the lineage both in the PA/NJ Chapter breeding program, as well as in Maryland.

The owner of the tree, Mrs. Eleanor Kelley, had passed away in 2016 , and we lost contact with the tree and its new owner. Ellen took a walk to find out how the tree was doing, and met Janet Kelley, Eleanor’s daughter, who proudly cares for her mother’s American chestnut tree. Ellen will be collecting small leaves this month from the Kelley tree to include it in TACFs landscape genomics program.In 2003, Dave Armstrong pollinated the Kelley tree with pollen from a large surviving American chestnut in Virginia called the Amherst tree. Then, in 2004, he established the Kelley x Amherst (KxA) orchard in Codorus State Park. With both the Kelley tree and the Amherst tree having some moderate amount of blight-resistance, the resulting progeny have improved resistance, about that equal to half that of a Chinese chestnut.

For almost 10 years, Dave distributed seeds form the KxA orchard to many members of the Pa/NJ Chapter and beyond. Chapter member and volunteer Jay Brenneman will carry on the work Dave started at Codorus State Park, and we look forward to continued distributions from this location.

Making Connections

“I moved to Camp Hill in 1995 and while exploring the neighborhood, I saw a catkin-laden chestnut in a backyard.  Several years later, I talked about chestnut restoration for my “final presentation” on the way to becoming a Master Gardener. Apparently, Cumberland County Extension made note of that and when Mrs. Kelley called the office to invite them to visit her tree, the call was passed on to me. It was the very same tree that I had spied in 1995! You never know how these connections can be made!  Eleanor Kelly was a wonderful woman, with a grand sense of humor. On one occasion, when Dave Armstrong and I were pollinating the tree, George Weigel, gardening columnist with the Patriot News joined us. He then wrote an article about Eleanor’s tree and the effort to restore the American Chestnut.  Mrs. Kelley, standing straight with her trusty cane, supervised the operation.  She was an avid gardener, and when I stared intently at the purple loosestrife in her garden she said,” I know, but it’s so beautiful”. As was she”.

Tracey Coulter | Agroforestry Coordinator
Bureau of Forestry | Rural and Community Forestry Section

To read an early account of the tree:

Old Chestnut Tree Fights Blight; Patriot-News, Harrisburg_PA,July_18_1999, pH01