Leavell tree farm helping to re-establish American chestnut

BULLARD — Moments after planting a group of young trees behind his Charlane Plantation home, Chuck Leavell was already thinking of future generations of another kind of tree — his family tree.

“It’s my vision that our grandchildren will bring their children out here and play up underneath these chestnut trees, and hopefully many, many more that we’ll plant in the years to come,” the Rolling Stones keyboard player said Tuesday.

The four American chestnut trees, donated by The American Chestnut Foundation, were planted at the home of Leavell and his wife, Rose Lane, as part of a tree demonstration site to develop an American chestnut tree resistant to disease that nearly wiped out the species decades ago.

“We depend on forests for air, clean water, wood products. We are absolutely dependent on those trees,” said Bryan Burhans, president and CEO of the American Chestnut Foundation, who attended Tuesday’s tree planting. “Although we have good healthy forests and we’re sustainably managing our forests now, there’s still a lot of forest health issues that we’re facing.”

Many of those issues stem from the introduction of non-native exotics, he said. The chestnut blight and ink disease are both examples of problems that were brought in from other countries, eventually causing harm to plants native to the United States.

At one time the American chestnut made up about a quarter of eastern forests, said Joe Nicholson, president of the Georgia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.

Forests from Florida and Mississippi all the way to Maine were home to the tree until the blight — an Asian fungus to which the American chestnuts had little resistance — was discovered in 1904 and wiped out virtually all of the species, he said. By 1950, about four billion trees had been destroyed.

Without “cute, cuddly panda bears or cute, cuddly grizzly bears,” the message of forest conservation is often lost among the numerous preservation efforts competing for attention, Burhans said.

“Our charismatic mega-flora is the American chestnut,” he said.

The organization has been working for years to breed a tree resistant to chestnut blight and ink disease. The ink disease is known as root rot because it attacks the roots of trees, turning them black and killing them.

To create a resistant tree, scientists at the Chestnut Return Farm in Seneca, S.C., bred a Chinese chestnut, which is naturally resistant to the blight, with an American chestnut.

Of 350 chestnuts planted the first year, only 25 trees lived, said Joe James, who runs the South Carolina operation.

The offspring of the surviving trees were then bred with other pure American chestnuts, and with each generation the Chinese genetics are decreased by 50 percent. The trees are then infected with the blight fungus in hopes of weakening the virus and helping the trees survive.

The trees planted Tuesday have survived for three years in a controlled environment and are 94 percent American chestnut.

The breeding process is an intricate one, taking the organization 30 years to get to the point where it is today, but Burhans said the group is now at a turn in the road.

Scientists hope that the genetically bred trees will grow to breed with each other naturally once planted in places such as Leavell’s Twiggs County home, rebuilding a strong American chestnut population that can withstand disease.

“We’re not talking 100 years,” James said. “With any luck, within 15 years, there could be a pretty significant nut distribution across the South.”

Leavell called the American chestnut “an iconic tree for our history and one of the most versatile and useful trees that America has ever known,” he said, noting that he and his wife have a passion for trees and forests.

“Chuck, he’s the real deal,” Burhans said. “He’s obviously a talented musician … but his passion is also forestry. He has a lot of expertise and he has helped the conservation community tell our story about forest conservation and the need to manage for healthy forest lands.”

Leavell, who has also played with the Allman Brothers Band, said his “ah-ha moment” came when it occurred to him that his musical instrument was made from trees.

“That just led to a self-education journey to learn, and I’m still on that journey trying to learn as much as I can about trees and forests and biodiversity and other aspects of the environment,” he said.

“All trees, no matter what the species, are renewable resources,” Leavell said. “It’s important that we do all that we can to recognize all of the things that the forest gives us. And if we take care of the forest, the forest will take care of us.”