(Posted March 31, 2008)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- 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.

While the college lacks a "village smithy" to place the chestnut trees near, it does have a grassy area behind Brumbaugh Academic Center, 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 (eventually the college will add 90 more trees) in a collaborative project between the college and the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. For more information about the PA Chapter of the
American Chestnut Foundation, call (814) 863-7192.

"The orchard will be used for research on a variety of factors concerning the American chestnut, as well as other chestnut species."

Uma Ramakrishnan, assistant professor of environmental science

"The orchard will be used for research on a variety of factors concerning the American chestnut, as well as other chestnut species," says 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 says the college will plant about 120 seeded plants on or around April 3. Juniata's facilities staff will plow up the grassy field behind Brumbaugh Academic Center, 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 (it has been 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 says.

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 from 100 to 150 feet and could reach 10 feet in diameter. After the turn of the 20th century, botanists noted that chestnuts were afflicted with chestnut blight, a disease caused by an Asian bark fungus. The disease was introduced into America 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 was comprised of chestnuts. American chestnuts were an important timber tree, and the nuts produced by the tree were once an important economic resource. The nuts are edible either raw or roasted, with most preferring the taste of, as Mel Torme wrote, "chestnuts roasting on the open fire."

Ramakrishnan, who is a wildlife biologist by training, is overseeing the chestnut orchard project. She was originally approached by Rick Entriken, a local representative for the American Chestnut Foundation, to start the project. Entriken donated seeds for the project and has acted as an adviser for chestnut growing. He also manages a chestnut orchard near Raystown Lake for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The care and research of the orchard will begin in the hands of Ashley Musgrove, a senior from Cumberland, Md., studying environmental design and art. She created a research project to determine the best temperature and growing medium to use in overwintering the chestnut seeds. "We are using a couple of GIS programs to design the orchard and create a map that will help with management of the trees," Musgrove says. This summer, another Juniata student, Kelly Crosset, a junior from York, Pa., will take over the project and continue through the next academic year.

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.