Jill Neimark (@jillneimark) is a writer whose work has been featured in Discover, Scientific American, Science, Nautilus, Aeon, Psychology Today and The New York Times. She writes this piece for NPR’s The Salt. The UC Food Observer has featured other work by Neimark: Packing an orchard in a bottle.
Chestnuts have been an important part of American life. Once, the stately trees were found from Maine to Mississippi, from the Atlantic east to the Appalachian Mountains and into the Ohio Valley. In the 1800s, “nutting” – harvesting chestnuts – was a favored autumn activity. The resulting harvest was used in “pan-fried bread, porridge, pickles, preserves, cream pie” and other colonial recipes.
In the early 1900s, a fungus – known as blight – was brought into the U.S. on fungus-resistant Chinese chestnuts. The result? The American chestnut was decimated…and a quarter of the nation’s Eastern forests vanished. It’s estimated that about 4 billion trees were lost.
But now, the iconic American chestnut could return, as a result of genetic engineering and the efforts of “biotechnologists” at the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry. They’re affiliated with the American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project…and they’re working hard to restore the species.
The ultimate plan is to plant about 10,000 transgenic seedlings and grow them big enough to produce enough pollen to pollinate other “wild” and vulnerable American chestnuts. That’s not cheap, so in 2014 the scientists organized the Ten Thousand Chestnut Challenge crowdfunding campaign. Their goal was $50,000, but they raised over $100,000. “It was a wildly successful campaign,” says Newhouse.
But the work is causing some controversy.