Arbor Day: Blight-resistant American chestnut, tree tours, choose trees for your garden & more

leaves on American chestnut tree
Leaves on American chestnut. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, SRS,

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Arbor Day is coming up on April 29, so let’s take some time to talk about trees. Find out about the progress toward saving the American chestnut, take tree tours, choose trees for your own landscape and more.

Blight-resitant American chestnut

Before the turn of the last century, the eastern half of the United States was dominated by the American chestnut. Because it could grow rapidly and attain huge sizes, the tree was often the outstanding visual feature in both urban and rural landscapes, according to the American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project. The wood was used wherever strength and rot-resistance was needed and the edible nut was a significant contributor to the rural economy.

Then a lethal fungus infestation, known as the chestnut blight, wiped out most of the trees during the first half of the 20th century.

But progress has been made. Through genetic engineering, there is now an American chestnut that is resistant to the blight.

“It’s taken 26 years of research involving a team of more than 100 university scientists and students here at the not-for-profit American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project, but we’ve finally developed a nonpatented, blight-resistant American chestnut tree,” according to William Powell, professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. His article is on The Conversation US, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.

The Conversation US article gives a thorough discussion of the work and addresses concerns that people might have about gene manipulation. It also discusses the next steps that must be taken shepherding these trees through federal regulatory review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

A different group, the American Chestnut Foundation, has a backcross breeding program that took Chinese chestnut trees, naturally resistant to the blight, and crossed them with their American cousins, resulting in trees that were 50 percent American and 50 percent Chinese. These trees were then backcrossed to the American species, resulting in trees that were 75 percent American.

Check out the comments section on the Conversation US article for a comparison of these two different approaches.

In addition, the New York Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation is searching for large surviving American chestnut trees in New York State to be “mother trees” for restoration. Find an American chestnut tree that is larger than 14 inches in diameter at breast height and you could get a $50 reward; the person who finds the largest one this year can claim the $200 reward. Find more details about the reward program here and learn how to identify an American chestnut tree here. Find frequently asked questions on the American Chestnut Foundation site.

Take a tree tour at the Botanical Gardens

Celebrate Arbor Day with Arbor Day Tree Tours at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday, April 29 at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, 2655 South Park Ave., Buffalo. Walks will take place rain or shine.

The Botanical Gardens recently received Level II Accreditation as an arboretum through ArbNet, the interactive community of arboreta. An arboretum is a botanical garden devoted to trees.

On these tours, you can visit some of the trees in their outdoor collections while learning the basics of tree identification.

The cost is $10.

Choose trees for your landscape

I’ve told you about this before, but it’s a great resource and worth mentioning again: the Cornell University’s Woody Plants Database.

You can search the database by several different characteristics to find suggestions that will work for you.

Choose your gardening zone. (Find out what gardening zone you are in here.)

You can choose trees (taller than or shorter than 30 feet), shrubs (taller than 8 feet, 4 to 8 feet, or shorter than 8 feet),  groundcovers or vines.

Select your light conditions: sun, part sun or shade. You can choose deciduous (plants that drop their leaves in winter) or evergreen. If you have wet or dry areas, you can also use that in your selection. And if you want to plant something near the street where it may be affected by salt runoff, you can select for that, too.

When I chose a deciduous shrub 4 to 8 feet tall for part shade in gardening Zone 6a, I got 47 results. Each entry is packed with information, including what insects and disease might bother the plant. Additional comments may let you know that the shrub will need pruning or adds winter interest. There are lots of photos, too.

If you know the name of a tree or shrub, you can type that in to find out more about it.

Grow fruit trees

The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation donates orchards where the harvest will best serve communities for generations, at places such as community gardens, public schools, city and state parks, low-income neighborhoods, Native American reservations, international hunger relief sites and animal sanctuaries. Get more details and an application here.

You can also find practical information such as tips on planting and caring for a fruit tree.

Beginning bonsai workshop, Bonsai Show

Bonsai are small, but they’re not dwarf varieties of trees. They are grown using young specimens of full-size trees that are carefully pruned and shaped.

Learn how to fashion a live bonsai tree while learning about the art of bonsai, techniques and styles with the Buffalo Bonsai Society in a beginning bonsai workshop from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 21 or at the same time on Friday, April 22 at the Botanical Gardens, 2655 South Park Ave., Buffalo.

All materials will be provided. You may wish to bring gardening gloves and a large box for transporting your bonsai home. Space is limited in each session.

The cost is $75 for Botanical Gardens members and $80 for non-members.

Registration is available online.

The Bonsai Show will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 4 and Sunday, June 5 at the Botanical Gardens.

Bonsai masters and novices will display their prized trees at their peak. The show is presented by the Botanical Gardens and Buffalo Bonsai Society.

The show is included with the cost of admission: $9 for adults, $8 for seniors 55 and older, $8 for students, $5 for children ages 3-12, and free for Botanical Gardens members and children age 2 and younger.

Learn about threats to hemlock

The New York State Hemlock Initiative has a video about their efforts to conserve New York State’s hemlock resources in the face of multiple threats, particularly that posed by an invasive pest, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Mortality due to Hemlock Woolly Adelgid in New York has increased at an alarming rate recently.


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