SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Over on Tuckertown Road is a rather special orchard with some advocates saving a special tree species few people know about or the reasons for their work.
It is the cultivating of a new breed of the American chestnut tree. That’s right, the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” kind that Nat King Cole made famous in the 1945 classic called “The Christmas Song” or “Merry Christmas to You” as written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé.
However, this American chestnut tree — actually a hybrid version designed to be more resistant to a devastating blight — is getting special attention right here in South County.
Preservation advocates have been working for many years to prevent extinction of this tree as ingrained in Americana as its wood is in sturdy furniture and fencing, chestnuts for scavenging animals to eat and a delightful savory nut people liked long ago when plentiful.
“Virtually every adult, mature American Chestnut tree has died all over the United States from the south to East of the Mississippi,” said Yvonne Federowicz of North Kingstown, a certified master gardener and former president of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.
That’s right, there’s even a foundation dedicated to the cause. Last week they gathered at the chestnut orchard on the former Hollis Tucker’s Laurel Brook Farm, now part of the South Kingstown Land Trust.
They were checking on how a hybrid tree — a combination of the Chinese chestnut tree and the American version — was developing.
Through backcross breeding, a combination of the two is helping to create a tree more resistant to a blight first brought to the United States over 100 years ago that destroyed the pure American version.
Federowicz said that she’s pleased to see the continued development of this new breed of tree. Although some are dying or are destroyed from time to time for various reasons, they are thriving now with between 2,000 to 3,000 growing either as trees or seedlings.
She explained that American Chestnut trees have died from the blight that actually came from Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees brought to this country in the 1800s.
The lethal fungus ruined about four billion American chestnut trees, roughly a quarter of the hardwood tree population, according to the American Chestnut Foundation.
In the late 1980s, scientists fought back, crossing naturally-resistant Chinese chestnut trees with American chestnut trees in an attempt to create blight-resistant trees.
She pointed out that there are many reasons to care about a tree few people know about.
“Its functionally extinct and can’t breed on own and it’s an endangered species, so we don’t want to lose it,” she said. The tree is also ecologically important,” she added.
Chestnuts are considered vital to the ecosystem in which they are located, serving as a reliable food source for wildlife and also as livestock feed. In the lumber industry, wood from American chestnut trees is desirable for use in construction and homebuilding because of its resistance to rot.
The program has its roots in a conversation between the land trust and the URI Master Gardeners about the feasibility of a chestnut research program.
The trust agreed to lend the land on the former Hollis Tucker Farm and the gardeners had the staff to facilitate the maintenance of the orchard. The foundation also assists now and the project has received support from The South County Garden Club.
Twelve years ago, writer Arline Fleming wrote about this tree and the famous Christmas song.
“While the nuts are known these days mainly by way of that classic Christmas tune, somewhere down the line, those chestnuts roasting over an open fire might, if all goes as planned, come from Tuckertown Road,” she said.