Pritchard ’61, left, and Paul Sisco ’67, both
of the American Chestnut Foundation, pollinate a surviving
American chestnut tree in North Carolina. (Debbie Chase-Jennings/Asheville
June 6, 2004:
the American chestnut Paul Sisco ’67 and Philip Pritchard
’61 join effort to grow blight-resistant trees
A hundred years ago, American chestnut trees stood so densely
in the Appalachian Mountains that their white blooms looked like
snow blanketing the hills. In some areas, fallen nuts lay inches
deep on the ground, providing a valuable food source for wildlife
— and humans — from Maine to Florida.
But all that changed when a devastating blight swept the Eastern
seaboard in 1904, killing some 4 billion chestnut trees in the next
several decades. Now only a small number of healthy, old chestnut
trees remain; new saplings continue to spring up, but they live
only a few years before the blight kills them.
Two Princetonians are working to change that. Paul Sisco ’67
and Philip Pritchard ’61 are part of an ambitious effort to
bring the trees back through a breeding program launched by the
American Chestnut Foundation.
“The forests were much healthier before the blight,”
says Pritchard, the foundation’s development and special projects
director. “And they could be again.”
In 1989, the foundation began crossing American chestnut trees
with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts. Sisco, a geneticist with
a B.A. in history from Princeton and a Ph.D. in plant breeding and
genetics from Cornell, joined the foundation in 1998. Based in Asheville,
North Carolina, Sisco coordinates the breeding efforts of chapter
volunteers in six southern states. Volunteers receive pollen from
blight-resistant hybrids grown at the foundation’s Meadowview
Research Farm in Meadowview, Virginia. They then find and pollinate
healthy American chestnut saplings in their respective states. Later,
they plant seeds from these trees to produce resistant trees adapted
to local conditions.
Meanwhile, Meadowview Research Farm has produced several generations
of resistant hybrids, each more American in its genetic makeup than
the last. Trees in the newest generation are now about two years
old and four feet tall. The seeds from these trees, which should
be ready for planting in 2007 or 2008, will be returned to the woods.
“All of this is still experimental. We are learning as we
go,” says Sisco, who hopes to have enough seeds to share with
the public by 2012.
Last year the foundation received its first federal grant, $60,000
from the U.S. Forest Service, and the 2004 Department of the Interior
appropriations bill has allotted the project $250,000. That’s
good news for Pritchard, a biology major at Princeton who had worked
in real estate and for the Nature Conservancy before rallying support
for the foundation, which he joined in 2002.
But while support and excitement are growing, the foundation’s
ultimate goal — a thriving population of American chestnuts
— won’t be accomplished for at least a hundred years,
says Sisco. “In this day and age when everyone wants instant
results, tree breeders have an unusual perspective on life and the
future,” he says. “They are working for the benefit
of their children and grandchildren.”
By Christine Larson ’90
Christine Larson ’90 is a freelance writer in Sacramento,