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Chestnut trees

Nearly 40 hybrid chestnut trees are taking root in Davenport’s Schuetzen Park. They’re still in wire cages to protect them from deer.

One of the magnificent trees of our country’s Eastern forests was the American chestnut, said to tower some 100 feet above the woodland floor. There were an estimated 4 billion of them growing over 200 million acres from Maine to Florida.

Then a blight introduced in 1904 spread like wildfire. In 50 years, it decimated the tree’s entire range, and all that remained were isolated stumps and root sprouts.

In 1983, a group called The American Chestnut Foundation was founded by prominent plant scientists with the goal of breeding a blight-resistant American chestnut.

Now, 36 of these blight-resistant trees have been planted at Schuetzen Park in Davenport, and Kory Darnall, the president of the nonprofit gilde, or organization, that manages the privately held park, says they’re doing well.

The container-grown trees were 2 to 3 feet high when they arrived from a Missouri nursery in the spring of 2011, with diameters ranging from the size of a pencil to a broomstick, he said.

“They’ve all doubled in size since last year; it’s really amazing,” Darnall said. And they’ve only been watered twice this summer.

Planting the chestnuts wasn’t just a matter of reforesting Schuetzen with quality hardwoods.

The hope is that they will provide an ongoing source of revenue for the park once they begin producing chestnuts that can be sold to gourmet shops or other businesses that make products from them.

Chestnuts are popular in Germany, eaten roasted or ground into filling for bread, soup and pudding — even candy, Darnall said. Given the popularity, the park might be able to organize an event around the chestnuts.

“People could come to the park for something different and unique,” he added.

Schuetzen is a 22-acre nature park at 700 Waverly Road, next to the Good Samaritan Society’s nursing home/apartment complex. It was operated from 1870 to 1923 by a German shooting society, and at its zenith the park had a music pavilion, a dance hall, a roller coaster, bowling alleys and a zoo. The only original building that remains is the streetcar pavilion. Restoration efforts began in 1995. It is open to the public.

A LITTLE MORE ABOUT CHESTNUTS: A few years ago on a tour around Smith’s Island — upstream from Lock & Dam 14 at LeClaire — my U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tour guide pointed out what he believed to be small American chestnut trees in a couple of spots along the north shore.

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The trees were believed to have sprouted from stumps after the parent trees died.

Shoots that regenerate from roots may reach 20 to 25 feet high before they are attacked and felled by the fungus, according to the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” by Michael A. Dirr.

The new hybridized trees that first became available in 2005 are expected to be resistant, according to the American Chestnut Foundation.

Under the breeding program, horticulturists take Chinese chestnut trees that are naturally resistant to the blight and cross them with their American cousins (sprouts from the originals), resulting in trees that are 50 percent American, 50 percent Chinese.

These trees are then back-crossed to the American species, resulting in trees that are 75 percent American. This procedure is repeated until the trees have at least 94 percent American genes. The purpose is to produce an American chestnut that retains no Chinese characteristics other than blight resistance, according to the foundation.

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