FROSTBURG — Cradling her small American chestnut tree as if it were a newborn baby, Nancy Bean was ready Saturday afternoon to return to her Backbone Mountain home where she would grab a shovel and plant a part of the country’s heritage.
“This was the heart of the American chestnut’s range,” said Katia Engelhardt, referring to the Maryland mountains.
Along with co-investigators Cat Stylinski and Steve Keller, all of the Appalachian Laboratory — part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science — Engelhardt sent nearly 700 trees, each about two feet tall, home with Maryland residents from Garrett to Frederick counties the past two Saturdays.
The project is officially called Citizens Restoring the American Chestnut and the new tree owners will report in twice yearly, most of them online, telling the researchers how their trees are doing.
A most utilitarian tree used for many purposes, the American chestnut ranged from Maine to Florida and west to Ohio until a blight nearly eliminated it early in the 1900s. The seeds used to grow the small trees handed out at the lab came from four surviving trees in Maryland that are protected by the American Chestnut Foundation.
“We know these trees we are giving out will get the blight in five to 15 years,” said Stylinski. “We want to see how well they grow in our region until then.”
Semi-annually, the new tree owners, about 140 strong, will let the Appalachian Lab know when the first leaves are seen, when they change color and when they drop. Other physical characteristics of the tree will be recorded as well.
A month or so ago, students from Mountain Ridge High School planted 700 seeds for the trees that will be given away a year from now following 12 months of life in the lab’s greenhouse.
“The project was funded with almost $15,000 from the Chesapeake Bay Trust,” Keller said.
Stylinski said the lab is committed to the project and will seek funding for future years.
Courtney Englar, who lives north of Accident, echoed Bean’s comment that each wanted to be part of restoring a nearly lost piece of America.
“I’ll put the trees in the middle of a 50-acre field,” Englar said.
The young trees need moist, but well-drained soil and a lot of sunlight, according to the researchers. The trees will be watered at first, but no fertilizer will be applied, so that the natural conditions that exist in Western Maryland will be the growing forces.
“Our goal was to bring in 105 people interested in planting and monitoring the trees, so we surpassed that,” said Stylinski.
By going online at http://fieldscope.org/map/45 and clicking American Chestnut Project, the location of the newly planted trees can be seen. Click on a tree to see the name of the planter and some of the site conditions. More data will be added by each grower in the autumn.
Another online presence is at www.facebook.com/restorechestnuts.
Keller called the project a fine example of citizen-science. “In that sense, it is cutting edge. We can’t be at a couple hundred places to check individual trees. The people I’ve spoken with are excited to be a part of the restoration effort.
“Who knows. Maybe we will come up with a blight resistant American chestnut,” he said.
Contact Michael A. Sawyers at email@example.com.