“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008″
(April 15, 2008) — A couple of decades after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of “a spreading chestnut tree” in his poem “The Village Blacksmith,” many of the American chestnut trees across the country were dead or dying from a blight. Juniata College is playing a small part in trying to bring the species back by creating a chestnut “orchard” on campus. Juniata is a Church of the Brethren college in Huntingdon, Pa.
While the college lacks a “village smithy” to place the chestnut trees near, it does have a grassy area behind Brumbaugh Academic Center. That is where Uma Ramakrishnan, assistant professor of environmental science, will oversee a 25,000 square foot plot (a bit more than half an acre) of 120 trees in a collaborative project between the college and the American Chestnut Foundation. Eventually the college will add 90 more trees.
“The orchard will be used for research on a variety of factors concerning the American chestnut, as well as other chestnut species,” said Ramakrishnan. “We will have multiple species of chestnut in the orchard and hopefully this will become a spot where we can not only do research, but also bring in classes from secondary and elementary schools.”
Ramakrishnan said the college was to plant about 120 seeded plants on or around April 3. Facilities staff will plow up the area, creating an orchard space that will be about 20 feet from the tree line surrounding the meadow and distributed 15 to 20 feet apart. The orchard will be irregularly shaped and will be planted around the Paul Hickes Observatory.
This year, the college will plant four species: the pure American chestnut, the Chinese chestnut, a hybrid American chestnut (crossbred with a disease resistant Chinese chestnut), and the European chestnut. “We also would like to plant the Japanese chestnut and the Chinquapin, a native chestnut species, next year,” Ramakrishnan said.
Once the trees are planted, Ramakrishnan and a team of Juniata environmental science students will monitor the stand of trees, pesticide and fungicide treatments, reproduction, nut production, and other factors.
Prior to 1900, the American chestnut was one of the dominant hardwood trees in American forests, used for furniture, lumber, and other products. The trees easily grew 100 to 150 feet high and could reach 10 feet in diameter. After the turn of the century, botanists noted that chestnuts were afflicted with chestnut blight, a disease caused by an Asian bark fungus. The disease was introduced through imported Chinese chestnuts, which were, and still are, resistant to the blight. Within a decade or two, billions of American chestnuts died off. It is estimated that 25 percent of the Appalachian forest had been comprised of chestnuts.
Ramakrishnan, is a wildlife biologist by training, and was originally approached by Rick Entriken, a local representative for the American Chestnut Foundation. Entriken donated seeds for the project and has acted as an advisor for chestnut growing. He also manages a chestnut orchard near Raystown Lake for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The care and research of the orchard will begin in the hands of Ashley Musgrove, a senior student from Cumberland, Md. She will be researching and implementing methods to protect the young trees from deer, and working with a team of other students for management of the orchard.
–John Wall is director of media relations for Juniata College.
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