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Reinhardt collaborates to revive the American chestnut tree

By Jordan Beach

A collaborative effort to restore the American chestnut species is affording Reinhardt University students great experience in hands-on research.

Just a few miles from campus, about 1,500 chestnut trees are being studied thanks to Reinhardt University Trustee Dr. Austin Flint; Dr. Zach Felix, associate professor of biology; Dr. Martin Cipollini, Dana professor of biology at Berry College; and the American Chestnut Foundation. The collaborative research begun by Cipollini is blooming into not only a great opportunity for students, but a new future for the American chestnut.

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Senior Ashlyn Carlton is pictured with Dr. Zach Felix, associate professor of biology, and Dr. Austin Flint, Reinhardt University Trustee. Carlton is a student intern helping to revive the American chestnut in a project by the American Chestnut Foundation. Photo by Tom Mileshko

In fall 2017 and spring 2018, Flint established the chestnut orchard on his Waleska property. An agreement was arranged between the American Chestnut Foundation and Reinhardt University by Cipollini and Felix to involve Reinhardt’s students in maintaining the orchard.

This involvement came in the form of internship positions for Reinhardt biology students. Felix’s summer assistant, Jordan Pitt, began the process of maintaining the trees, and Kylie Stover ’19 became the first intern at the orchard. Senior Ashlyn Carlton has continued Stover’s work this fall.

“I chose the internship because I wanted to contribute my effort and knowledge to helping restore the American chestnut tree to its former native range,” said Carlton. “The American chestnut was once an important resource for lumber because the wood was strong and naturally rot resistant. The chestnuts the trees produced were an important source of food for wildlife.”

Trustee Flint not only provides the land for the research but he also provides a stipend through Reinhardt University to compensate the students for their work.

Billions of American chestnut trees existed across eastern North America before a fungal disease, known as chestnut blight, nearly wiped out the species.

“The goal now is to restore this once abundant tree through back cross breeding and biotechnology to produce an American chestnut tree that is resistant to blight and has all the characteristics of the original American chestnut tree,” said Carlton. “This orchard will help with that process and ultimately play a part in restoring the American chestnut as an important forest tree and natural resource.”

“The intern is responsible for week-to-week operations in the orchard including weed control, fertilizing, control of another exotic pathogen called Phytophthora cinnamomi, as well as coordinating with Dr. Flint to make sure that supplies are acquired etc.,” said Felix.

Carlton and biology alumnus Taylor Weaver will work alongside Felix to complete the first full census of surviving trees and the tree’s growth. Felix hopes to present the data with Carlton, Weaver and Cipollini at a regional biology conference in April.

Through this internship, Carlton has not only gained field experience and learned how her classroom knowledge is applicable to work in her field but has contributed to the 20-30 years of work that has been done to restore this species.

“I have been able to apply what I’ve learned about the needs and the importance of the American chestnut from my plant biology class to aid me in my methodology for caring for them.”

Carlton, a volleyball player and Tri-Beta member, plans to spend time with her family following graduation, and will work at Georgia Northwestern Technical College as an adjunct biology lab instructor. Her goal is to later pursue a master’s degree.

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