October 19, 2021

Freeville man grows American chestnut trees naturally

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Freeville’s Ken Blenk hunts for open chestnut burrs Friday at his 400-tree orchard in Solon.

FREEVILLE — Mammoth American chestnut trees dominated the East Coast of the United States. They provided lumber. They provided food. They provided jobs.

They provided a life for farmers.

Then they disappeared, along with the food, jobs and a way of life. In the late 1800s a fungal blight entered the U.S. from imported Asian chestnut trees, killing more than 3 billion American chestnut trees over 50 years.

The American chestnut is not extinct, though. No matter how hard the blight tries to make it so.

Many, such as Freeville resident Ken Blenk, are planting American chestnut trees to restore the species.

Unlike colleges and organizations that are crossbreeding the trees or swapping genes, Blenk is growing all his trees naturally.

“I do it the old-fashioned way,” Blenk said. “ No GMO. No back crossing. Pure American.”

Blenk has a 400-tree orchard off Sosinsky Road in Solon — all American chestnut trees.

Some are about 11 years old. Some are 3 to 4 years old. The blight typically strikes when trees are between 15 and 20 years old.

The seeds they sprout from come from around the country, and even Canada, Blenk said. All are mostly from the northeast region, though, as they’re more acceptable to the colder climate. There are none from Georgia or Tennessee.

He has each tree mapped out on a grid, so he can tell you where each came from.

American chestnut trees can grow to 50 to 75 feet tall — possibly even 80 to 100 feet tall. Allen Nichols, president of the American Chestnut Foundation New York chapter, said he’s seen American chestnuts grow 6 feet in a year. They can expand to 12 to 13 feet in diameter.

“They’re monstrous,” Blenk said. “It’s really quite a tree.”

Blenk has been growing the American chestnut in Cortland County for about 11 years, but has been growing the tree for more than 30 years.

He had never heard of the American chestnut tree until he was in his 30s, he said. Once he discovered it, he began studying it, and became interested in helping to reestablish them.

His father was an entomologist — studying insects — but was also interested in trees. Blenk said his father taught him everything he knows about trees and insects. His father never planted trees, but Blenk said his father’s passion inspired him.

“I really like trees,” Blenk said. “There is something about them. People don’t appreciate them as much as they should.”

Before leaving Maine to move to Freeville, he had an American chestnut that had lasted about 20 years, before the blight killed it — a normal life span for the tree. However, there is a tree at his brother’s house in Maine that’s 25 years old, and has yet to show any blight, Blenk said.

When the trees start to grow big, their bark cracks, allowing the blight entry.

He called the tree at his brother’s place “the holy grail” if it does not get any blight on it.

Blenk’s theory is by continually planting the tree, over time it will become immune to the blight, like a person can become immune to a virus after being exposed to it. When one of his tree dies, he’ll grow another.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Blenk said.

He acknowledged that method could take 100 years before it actually starts to produce blight-resistant trees. He said the Chinese chestnut tree is resistant to the blight because it has been exposed to it for many years.

Nichols is not as confident in Blenk’s plan.

“Trees don’t have an immune system,” Nichols said. “They don’t become resistant.”

Some organizations have been working on creating a hybrid American chestnut — mixing its genes with the Chinese chestnut — for about 30 years. He said it could be another 20 years before the hybrids show any resistance.

The theory was there were only three genes from the Chinese chestnut needed to mix with the American to make it resistant. There are actually 10. Nichols said it is almost impossible to get all 10.

However, the American Chestnut Foundation was been working with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse for 28 years to develop a blight-resistant tree. Nichols said he can’t call the tree blight proof, but their research has created a tree with resistance to the blight.

By mixing a single gene from wheat with the tree, it helps the tree produce an enzyme that breaks down the acid of the fungus. The fungus can get on the tree, but not hurt it.

Like Blenk, Nichols said his goal is to make the American chestnut tree the dominant tree along the East Coast, and eventually the nation.

While he understands Blenk’s method of having a diverse gene selection of trees from different areas, he would rather all trees in New York be New York trees. Then spread them to other states.

Also, he fears that in a large orchard like Blenk’s that if one tree get blight, it could spread like wildfire to the other trees.

Blenk is confident in his method. He’ll keep growing them until he reaches his goal.

“I can’t help growing trees,” Blenk said. “There’s something about it.”