Rare chestnut find: 'This tree, it's a survivor'

A rare American chestnut tree found growing west of London will be used to help bring back the species decimated by blight over the past century.

Conservationists hope to use rare tree to help bring back species wiped out by blight

Dan Brinkman stands with a rare find: A healthy American chestnut tree. The species had been devastated by a blight that killed more than 99 per cent of the trees over the past century. Brinkman is hoping this tree can be used to help regenerate more American chestnuts. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Dan Brinkman — a self-described tree nerd — knew he'd hit the jackpot when he was told about a certain tree standing in a cattle pasture near Mount Brydges.

To most, the tree looks like any other. But to Brinkman, a stewardship technician with the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, he was pretty certain this was an American chestnut, a species that once thrived in southern Ontario but has been nearly wiped out by blight in the past century.

Dan Brinkman intends to use this rare healthy mature American chestnut tree to help bring the species back from the brink. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

"You read in the books about how rare it is and how small most of them are, just a sprout coming off a stump, and to find a tree without a spec of blight on it, that's like going for a hike in China and seeing a panda bear cross the path in front of you. It's there, you just don't expect to see that."

It's believed that up to two million American chestnuts once grew in southern Ontario's Carolinian zone, a stretch of land that covers much of the area from Lake Huron to Lake Erie. 

But blight, an insidious tree-killing fungus, has nearly doomed the species. It's believed there are only about 2,000 wild American chestnuts left in Ontario. 

Most found are suckers sprouting up from a stump or hybrids mixed with other chestnut species. 

But a fully grown chestnut tree about 70 years old and 15 metres (50 feet) tall? That's rare, with only three reported in Middlesex County.

"This tree, it defied the odds," said Brinkman. "It's a survivor."

Holding one of the chestnut's prickly seeds is something Dan Brinkman says is like holding a porcupine. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

He contacted the Canadian Chestnut Council, whose members helped him verify this was indeed an American chestnut.

Now, with the permission of the landowner, there are plans to use the tree to grow others. 

Because mature American chestnuts don't produce offspring on their own, members of the council will plant blight-resistant seedlings around the tree in hopes it will lead to seed production. They will use those seeds to plant chestnuts at Longwoods Road Conservation Area over the next few years. 

"It'll take some time before we get a lot of seed collection. I'd say about eight years. But if we start now we'll reap the benefit later. The more we can help the trees on the way out, we'll be able to buy time for this species."


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.