Seneca Retiree Trying To Bring Back American Chestnut Tree - WSPA.com

Seneca Retiree Trying To Bring Back American Chestnut Tree

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Chestnut tree that is 75% American species and 25% Chinese species Chestnut tree that is 75% American species and 25% Chinese species
Baby Chestnut, 94.5% American Chestnut. Baby Chestnut, 94.5% American Chestnut.
94.5% American Chestnuts that succumbed to disease. 94.5% American Chestnuts that succumbed to disease.

We all know "The Christmas Song," chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but have you ever eaten a chestnut? The American species of the tree has practically disappeared, but one Upstate man is gaining international attention for his work to revive the American Chestnut.

'It's hard work, it's hot and it's hard," says Dr. Joe James.

The doctor is a retired orthopedic surgeon in Seneca, but he spends little time enjoying retirement. The Seneca Resident has made it his mission to bring back the American Chestnut Tree.

"If we could recreate the ecology we had in those days it would fill a tremendous gap that we don't even know is there because people have forgotten about the chestnut trees," James says.

James yard may look like any other, but it's actually filled with different experiments. He works with Steve Jeffers at Clemson University in trying to grow an American Chestnut tree that can overcome disease. The American Chestnut began dying out in the early 1900s after a disease was brought to the continent that the tree couldn't fight off.  James and Jeffers are working to create a disease resistant tree.

"You never get attached to a tree as soon as I say 'oh boy, I like this one, this one's a really nice American looking tree,' it will die in about two weeks," James says.

The research has peaked international interest. Next week, a woman studying the European species in Portugal is coming to the Upstate to learn from the work James and Jeffers has done.

"I may learn a lot from her too," James says.

So far, they've had success with trees that are 75% American species Chestnut and 25% Chinese species Chestnut. They plan to breed these trees with trees that are 94.5% American species in the hopes that the resilient Chinese genes will be diluted be help strengthen the American species.

"We're missing a couple of genes, one or two that we need," James says.

James hopes he'll discover that missing link in the coming years and that one day he hopes the American Chestnut will once again be part of the ecosystem.

"They grew 200 feet tall and back in the old days the average diameter was about 8 feet," James says.

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