In 2020 the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation entered the applied restoration stage of our strategy to return and restore this tree to public (Federal and State) and private forest lands through various techniques. Our focus is on areas with the greatest existing remnant populations. In many areas of dissected forest across the native range, the tree is extirpated, but we are focusing on the areas where the trees are abundant, though blighted and unable to function with the same level of ecological utility they once had before the arrival of the chestnut blight. 95% of the trees are not fruiting because of the blight. Castanea ozarkensis (Ozark chinquapin) is a very important hard mast tree and is one of the only trees that have a reliable, consistent, nut crop every year. This is due to the trees’ late flowering time, which allows them to escape damage caused by late frost responsible for the fluctuation of nut production in other forest trees such as oaks. When the Ozark chinquapin began disappearing from the landscape they were replaced by oaks that don’t provide the same nutritional value and consistency. Ozark chinquapin nuts are high in carbohydrates and protein and are far superior to any other nut in the woods in terms of nutrition. These trees are an important food source for wildlife, and restoring them to the forest will benefit animals and insects and man.
It’s important to capture key genetic diversity that exists within Ozark chinquapin populations located at (or near) target restoration areas, and to that end, we’ve been locating flowering and fruiting Ozark chinquapin on Ozark and Ouachita National Forest, where we’ve undertaken an important collaboration with the Forest Service to do restoration work, and have been selecting parent trees to breed in the spring 2023. The offspring (seed) will be planted within target restoration areas we’ve designated. We want to restore those areas with only local Ozark chinquapin genetics.
For 15 years the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation has been locating and breeding rare Ozark chinquapin with varying levels of natural genetic resistance against the fungal pathogen Cryphonectria parasitica– the fungus introduced to the USA from Asia that causes chestnut blight disease in all species of chestnut. Varying levels of susceptibility exist between species, populations, and individuals. Less than 1% of Ozark chinquapin are blight resistant. Thanks to natural genetic variation that exists in wild stands, blight resistant trees can be found. We cross-pollinate these rare Ozark chinquapin to produce offspring with improved levels of blight resistance, while maintaining enough genetic diversity that the resulting populations of trees can continue to evolve and are equipped for any future threat from pests and pathogens. We screen parent trees and their offspring to evaluate resistance and identify superior trees for breeding. Testing the offspring of trees we’ve crossed demonstrates the majority of offspring developed have resistance levels similar to the parents (good resistance/tolerance), about 30% have less resistance and are susceptible, and about 10% have better resistance than the parents. Approximately 70% of all the offspring we develop have enough resistance to withstand the bight under natural conditions. We have conducted long term field trials across 29 states, where the seed we developed have been planted by thousands of OCF members, and the trees are naturally challenged by the blight in a variety of locations.
Al Knox explaining how to handle the fragile Ozark Chinquapin seed to volunteers at Hobbs State Park