Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 15, 2014

Enjoying Nature: A tale of two trees

By Don Hazel
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — While out hiking in the past month, I found two different trees with big stories to tell. The trees' stories are sad, but hopeful.

Both times, when I discovered the two trees, I was bushwhacking. Bushwhacking is hiking off-trail ... just going through the forest, not on any defined path. You'll often find sights bushwhacking in the winter that would be obscured by leaves and protected by ticks in the summer.

The first tree story involved a giant Eastern hemlock tree, not too far from the end of Lake Dartmoor, near Rotherham Drive. This hemlock was big; one of the biggest that you'll see around here. The tree told me a lot, and it wasn't happy. It was covered with the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA). That is not good.

The HWA, if untreated, will kill the tree within 4-8 years. The insect is an introduced species that has been spreading this way since it was first discovered in the 1920's in New England. This is, I believe, the first reported case of HWA in Fairfield Glade. You can easily identify an infected tree by looking on the underside of the hemlock needles. On an infected tree you will see small, white, cotton-like clusters at the base of each needle. The white cotton material isn't the insect, it is just a protective cover that the insect produces. The woolly adelgid is a tiny, brownish insect under the cotton.

We knew the HWA was coming, but a survey, just a few months ago, found no evidence of it in Fairfield Glade yet. I reported my finding to the FFG committee that recently put together a comprehensive report on how to combat the insect pest in our area. The plan is ready; we just hoped that the HWA wasn't here yet. There will be a cost to save each hemlock tree, and every tree won't be able to be saved, but at least we are ready. I just wasn't quite ready, so soon, for the story that tree told.

The second tree I found was very unexpected, but very exciting. While hiking with some friends, we stopped to look at some squirrel tracks along a fallen log, when I spotted an American chestnut bur on the ground next to the log. You may be saying, "Wait a minute, all the American chestnut trees died by the 1940's from a blight," and you would be correct ... almost. At the turn of the 20th century, American chestnut trees comprised almost 25 percent of Appalachian forests. It is hard to believe that they were completely wiped out in less than 40 years. Pure American chestnut trees still continue to sprout from 80-year-old roots; however, they all eventually catch the blight, and most die before growing large enough to produce nuts. Although extremely rare, every once in a while, a tree will get big enough to bloom and produce chestnuts. I found some a few years ago in Pennsylvania and last week we found one of those rare trees in Fairfield Glade.

The tree here has a 32 inch circumference, and is about 50 feet tall. I found over 40 chestnut burs on the ground. Each 2.5 inch diameter bur usually contains three nuts. I have sent samples of the leaves, twigs and burs to the American Chestnut Foundation in Asheville, NC for confirmation. They may want to cross pollinate this tree with another surviving chestnut tree.

Since the nuts inside the burs are small and look dehydrated, it means, I believe, that they are not fertile. Chestnut trees cannot pollinate themselves and need another nearby tree for the nuts to fully develop. There is no nearby chestnut tree.

The chestnut tree looks very healthy, except for one small problem. Near the base of this tree, there are signs of the blight beginning to attack the tree. The tree will eventually die.

There may not be hope for this specific chestnut tree, but the story doesn't end here; there is hope for the species. The American Chestnut Foundation has developed trees that are 15/16th American chestnut, and 1/16th Chinese chestnut, with all of the great characteristics of the American chestnut, (sweeter nuts, fast growing, tall, straight, rot-resistant wood), and the blight resistance of its Chinese cousin. These trees are still being tested, but hopefully, our grandchildren will someday be able to experience the great, 100-foot tall, American chestnut trees, once again gracing our Eastern forests. And that is no tall tale.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com