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Saving Chestnut Trees

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And like cypress, the American chestnut is valued for its beauty. These days few chestnut trees manage to reach maturity due to a devastating fungus. Steve Inskeep got one expert on the phone who says some people are trying to grow chestnuts anyway.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The man who's a source of the chestnuts is Marshall Case. He is president of The American Chestnut Foundation and he's on the line.

Good morning.

Mr. MARSHALL CASE (President, The American Chestnut Foundation): Good morning.

INSKEEP: How much demand is there for chestnut saplings?

Mr. CASE: A lot. Many people are contacting us all the time thinking that we have a product already, and we're still working on the research to return American chestnuts to the Eastern forests.

INSKEEP: The problem here is what?

Mr. CASE: The problem is that an Asian fungus came in accidentally late 1800s and it wiped out four billion trees, eliminating American chestnut from the Eastern forest ecosystem.

INSKEEP: And it's pretty much been gone for decades.

Mr. CASE: Since the 1950s, early '60s. And being wiped out means that the trees, when they get up to a flowering stage, if they get that high, they're struck by the blight and they die back. So there are a lot of sprouts out there that come up from the root system which is not attacked by the fungus, but the blight attacks them when they get to early maturity and begin to flower. And our challenge is to develop a blight-resistant tree.

INSKEEP: What we've heard from gardeners is that even though this tree, if you plant it, is going to die decades before it gets to that great maturity, people are planting them.

Mr. CASE: That's right. They understand that what they're doing now is going to help restore this wonderful tree to the forest. There's a real fascination with this tree because of what it did for entire communities and villages in the past. It supported--it was called a cradle-to-grave tree. I mean, you could actually survive totally on chestnut because of the wood, the nut production. There's a lot of neat stuff that goes on with chestnut and it inspires people. It catches their attention.

INSKEEP: Marshall Case is president of The American Chestnut Foundation. He's in Bennington, Vermont.

Thanks very much.

Mr. CASE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.