Lois Melican and Denis Melican are American chestnut restoration activists and former Board members of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). In 2019, the Melicans made the decision to resign from TACF due to the organization’s support for the unregulated planting of genetically engineered (GE or genetically modified) American chestnut trees throughout eastern US forests. Read their full resignation letter here.
Redwood of the East: the American Chestnut Tree
By Ruth Seward-Director, Outreach & Community Engagement
If you visited the Eastern half of the United States in the 19th century, you would have become familiar with the American Chestnut tree (Castanea dentata). Often called the “Redwood of the East,” the American Chestnut comprised 25 percent of the forest in our region and provided all kinds of benefits to our society and ecosystem. Trees were known to live as long as 500 years reaching heights of 100 feet or more with a diameter of over 10 feet. They were a magnificent staple tree from Maine through Appalachia and the Ohio Valley.
Even in large cities like Worcester, chestnut trees thrived. Families would gather nuts for their own enjoyment or feed the nutritious food to their livestock. The strong chestnut wood had a natural resistance to rot and was often used as building material for wood beams and furniture. It was devastating when the parasitic blight, Cryphonectria parasitica, was discovered in American Chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. This imported outbreak eventually destroyed nearly 100 percent of all American Chestnut trees within 40 years.
Tower Hill Botanic Garden, through its Outreach Department, works with community partners restoring the American Chestnut tree through cross breeding methods. According to American Chestnut tree advocate Lois Breault Melican, “The Green Hill Park chestnut trees are the product of a breeding program that involves both back crossing and inter crossing generations while always selecting for blight resistance and American traits. They are 15/16 American (93.75%) and 1/16 Chinese, from which the blight resistance was inherited; these are called B3F3 (3rd back cross and 3rd filial intercross.) When the GHP trees drop nuts on the ground these seeds would be the 4th filial cross, or a B3F4.”
American Chestnut Tree restoration projects exist throughout the United States. In Massachusetts Tantasqua High School in Fiskdale and Mt. Ella in Monson are large research sites testing the cross breeding methods of restoring the chestnut tree. While the American Chestnut Foundation’s focus is now on genetic modification of chestnut trees, there is a coalition of American Chestnut researchers and activists committed to traditional cross breeding methods. THBG is excited to contribute to the research efforts for restoring a blight resistant American Chestnut tree at Green Hill Park, in partnership with the City of Worcester, Green Hill Park Coalition and, expert chestnut tree advocates Lois and Denis Breault-Melican.