Updated: Aug 8
Jess Ellis is a horticulturist who graduated this year from Stockbridge School of Agriculture in Massachusetts and currently lives in upstate New York.
I had met Jess quite recently, and spent time with her in the company of mutual friends only twice, but her passion for plants was an immediately prevalent component of her sociability. When I went to her house in Rosendale for coffee with my friend, Matt, she was telling us about the timeline of the endangered American chestnut tree. She’d recently discovered what might be one of them on the property of the ranch that she was working as a groundskeeper. I snapped some photos for purely aesthetic reasons during that monologue;
but something clicked and I found myself wanting to see the tree for myself and pass on her wealth of knowledge in a photojournalistic fashion. About a week later, Jess invited us to the property in Kerhonkson where she worked. We followed her on a hunt of identification, watching her compare the leaves of what she thought was the American chestnut to other leaves, inspecting fallen chestnuts, scavenging more of the nearby property just to make sure nothing else could be it, and returning to the original suspect.
As she studied it, I asked her to repeat most of what she had told us over coffee the other day:
“I would like to see the buds of this tree and the leaves before I can confidently say if it is one or the other, that is, American [chestnut] or Chinese [chestnut].
These orange [fruiting bodies] make me believe that it is in the beginning stages of an infection, but how big it is makes me think that it was put here on purpose by a well-connected gardener, and I know that one used to live on this land. I still have a lot of questions, there is never one-hundred percent certainty in botany.
These trees, and I’m speaking as if this is definitely an American chestnut, used to be the keystone species of the Appalachian forests, which means they were the apex, like, most important tree for everybody: for animals, for native indigenous people, etc. in the entire forest range."
“Castanea mollissima (Chinese), co-evolved with a fungus called Cryphonectria parasitica, which is more commonly known as the ‘Chestnut blight’, it’s a fungus, and so all of the centuries that the Chinese chestnut had available to it in order to grow resistance to the fungus, the American chestnut did not have. So, in the late 1800s, when colonizers were, like, instating the ‘American lawn’ with landscaping and clean edges and forcing themselves into forests, they wanted to plant Chinese chestnuts for aesthetic reasons [and reasons of value]. They came over on ships for landscaping and lumber, and the blight came over in the wood of the Chinese chestnut. One of the biggest ports was in New York City. The first recorded case of a deadly chestnut blight was recorded in the Bronx Zoo in 1902 and that was just the first time that someone with enough knowledge looked closely enough to notice. It absolutely ravaged the countryside, I mean, the fungus killed trees at an unprecedented speed, there had been nothing before that was this fast. Within two years it could take down a tree that was six feet in width. People tried terrible things, ending up spreading the fungus more in the effort to prevent it. They would try chopping down the Chinese chestnut trees and moving the wood elsewhere and that just brought the fungus with it. The way that the Chinese chestnut interacts with the fungus is that it still gets it but it’s resistant, just like how we are resistant to the flu after we get the vaccine. It killed all of the American chestnuts in their native range which is from Georgia to Maine, a bit west to Michigan and down.”
"And how are we unknowingly suffering without them?”
"So, people used to go out into a forest and kick a chestnut tree, shake a loose branch, which, when these are a legacy tree, a champion of a field, will [grow] up and out in this way that it’s just opening its arms to the sun and droops over like lazy grasses in a vase, elm trees are similar. So, you could jump up, hang on one of the branches, shake some, and you’d have
enough food to feed your family, your neighbor’s family, and your neighbor’s neighbor’s family for a couple of nights if you wanted roasted chestnuts.
And the things were big, I mean, the microbiome that old-growth forests encourage, I hope it never fully comes out of its mystery, you know, because it’s just enigmatic in this way that even scientists, I mean, they study, but the forest will always know more. [They were important] for the wildlife, too, the birds, the deer, the squirrels. Can you imagine how much squirrels miss chestnuts? It was also a very important lumber tree, the things were so damn big that people could build their homes and all of the furniture in them with not even a whole tree. "
“How are people currently trying to reverse the blight?”
"Genetic engineering for the Chinese and American chestnuts has been done in the same way for a while.
Basically, how you do it is you start with the American chestnut and the Chinese chestnut, you can do this because they are in the same genus I believe, the overarching thought is that you would be crossing these plants to create a next generation that would show favorable phenotypes (traits). You cross a bunch of American chestnuts with a bunch of Chinese chestnuts and you get your second generation, and then of the progeny (offspring) in the second generation, we are going for Chinese resistance with American traits. You would just continually cross them over many generations until you get something that looks, acts, smells, tastes, and feels like an American chestnut but is resistant to the blight. The American Chestnut Foundation I think has a hybridized American chestnut that’s 92% genetically American and 8% genetically Chinese, the last I heard. It takes a lot of time if you’re pollinating trees, waiting for flower, fruit and seed, planting, and waiting for them to get to a sexual reproductive age. Making one generation could potentially take you 5 years.
There are two strains of the fungus; in the same way hyper kids have a lot of energy, the hyper-virulent chestnut blight is the one that kills trees. We found in recent times that there is also a hypo-virulent strain. It’s the use of the hypo-virulent strain that could potentially save the tree if sexually compatible hypo- and hyper-virulent strains existed in the same tree, the hypo strain would make the tree exist longer although it might not be happy.
Fungi reproduce sexually and asexually, so the sexual parts of the fungus have to be biologically compatible in order for you to do this. They take the bark that's infected with the hypo-virulent type, blend it up with a little water, put it in a bottle, and shoot it into the canker (wound) of the at-risk trees, and it’ll stop the progression of the fungus if it’s sexually compatible.
But, yeah, I really can’t believe this [tree] is here!
It’s so silly to be a farmer, landscaper, and/or gardener because you’re working with, like, things that are alive, beings, but you’re also making executive decisions for their lives in an artful way. I mean, there’s width, there’s depth, there’s height, water and light and all of that, but, I think the biggest and hardest thing to deal and work with is time. It feels like gardeners are artists that work with four dimensions, and to be a good one you just gotta ride the wave of time."