Chestnuts Roasting

David Bryant, who grows American chestnuts in Nelson County and sells them from his orchard and others, keeps the nuts roasting evenly by numerous flips of the pan on the grill.

Did you know you can buy American chestnuts again?

Actually, make that near-American chestnuts; the trees producing them in Nelson County are hybrids that are roughly 6% to 5% Chinese chestnut.

But 94% to 95% American is a huge piece of progress in the long effort to recover the species — or at least a version of it that is as close as possible to the magnificent trees that once flourished in our mountains.

The loss of the American chestnut is considered “the worst ecological disaster of our time,” said Tom Saielli, science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation.

Huge chestnut trees were a foundation of Appalachian life, renowned for their wood and for their fruit, which fed humans, livestock and wild animals. The species originally ranged from New England to isolated stands in the deep South, west into Indiana and isolated spots in Illinois, and even around Lake Erie.

Chestnut forests were devastated by a blight accidentally introduced from Asia in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, American chestnuts were virtually wiped out.

Not that some trees didn’t survive. They sprouted new growth from old stumps or sometimes even managed to breed and reproduce. But the blight invariably hit them before they could fully mature.

Scientists are now pursuing a process that relies on new technologies and old-fashioned cross-breeding methods, marrying American chestnuts with Chinese chestnuts, which are blight-resistant. Native chestnuts then are bred to each successive generation, with the goal of developing a hybrid that contains the least amount of Chinese genetic material while still retaining the Chinese tree’s blight resistance, and is capable of reproducing.

That strategy has succeeded in creating a tree that is commercially viable. And chestnut orchardists in Nelson County have formed a cooperative to raise the trees and market their fruit. Growers can bring their produce to Bryant’s Orchard for distribution.

A website (virginiachestnuts.com) also lists Dickie Bros Orchard in Roseland and Shady’s Place in Woods Mill as places to buy chestnuts.

Scientists say the recovery effort also could have far-reaching benefits by showing how to save other threatened species worldwide.

For now, we’re just glad that sweet American chestnuts are available for sale — and from local producers. That’s a milestone worth celebrating.

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