American chestnut expert James scheduled to speak at Native Plant Society meeting

CENTRAL — At the Jan. 20 meeting of the SC Native Plant Society at Southern Wesleyan University, Dr. Joe James will present the latest “progress report” regarding his extensive restoration work with the American Chestnut Foundation and Clemson University.

The great American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) — the trees that once dominated eastern forests, reaching heights of more than 100 feet and diameters of more than 10 feet, whose nuts were an important food for man and wildlife alike — were killed by two pathogens.

In 1876, the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, cause of the well-known chestnut blight, arrived in the Northeast, hitchhiking on Japanese chestnuts destined for the ornamental trade.

Thirty years later, lesions were found on American chestnuts in New York, and 50 years after that the American chestnut was virtually eliminated from the eastern deciduous forest ecosystem.

Virtually eliminated, but not quite. Some continue to sprout from stumps — usually to be attacked by the blight just as they become mature enough to flower.

Enter the American Chestnut Foundation. This Asheville, N.C.-based organization, comprising 6,000 members and volunteers, is all about the restoration of the American chestnut to its former niche in the ecosystem. One of the organization’s members is James, a retired orthopedic surgeon in Oconee County. James planted his first crop of American Chestnut Foundation seeds in 2001. A special screening program that he developed using thousands of seedlings attracted national attention.

James’ presentation is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Founders Hall in Dining Commons on the campus of SWU in Central. The public is invited.