SONG News June 2005 no. 71
In this Issue...

Technical Meeting Report

The first speaker was a representative from OMAFRA, who spoke on the proper harvesting, handling and processing of agricultural products such as fruits, vegetables, and nut crops to prevent the spread of salmonella etc. Tracking of outbreaks is that sophisticated The Ontario Dept. of Health noted a 45% increase in salmonella cases in 2000 and 157 cases in 2001. The probable cause was narrowed down to California raw almonds and one contaminated Sheller / Huller which was shared amongst many farms. The California Almond Board immediately recalled millions of dollars of product from around the world. Processing methods were implemented to avoid future such issues.

Next was Todd Leuty also from OMAFRA Fergus. Todd talked on pesticides and herbicide registration for nut production in Ontario. Eastern Filbert (Hazel) Blight control requires "Quadris" sprayed in the spring, followed by two sprays of copper then two more sprays of Quadris. Note: do not spray Quadris near apple trees. Todd indicated that any blight that is pruned from trees should be burned and your tools regularly disinfected. The wish list for future controls for walnuts includes "Esteem" and "Intrepid" for coddling moth and "Avant" for coddling moth, the walnut husk maggot & curculio. Products for Hazel's include "Acramite" and "Kanemit" for the control of European red spider mite, two spotted moth and bud mites, to be applied in, the fall after harvest. Note: do not use Quadris in the vicinity of apple crops.

Todd hopes Ottawa will approve the use of Surround for the control of Walnut husk fly maggot and Butternut circulio. John Gardiner also from OMAF gave a detailed presentation on Surround which is an alternative to chemical pesticides. The actual product is Kaolin clay a product found in cake flour, toothpaste, and many pharmaceuticals. When sprayed on it is white, and is presently approved for use on pears, apples, and grapes. Surround reduces the effect of UV heat stress and suppress insect pests such as weevils, maggots, mites, leaf rollers, and curculio. It is not effective against coddling moth and filbert worm. Surround was researched In 1985 by the USDA and is used for fruits, olives, & nuts. The product sells for about 35.00 per bag. This could be a good healthy alternative control product for nuts.

Keystones and Cops: An Eco-Mystery Thriller Part 1
Peter Bane

If you'd just witnessed the crime of the century and you thought you knew the culprit and the story, wouldn't you be eager to tell it? No, I don't mean Dubai and the Twin Towers - that one's already been figured out, but another story, from another century, copiously reported but equally misunderstood.

Ninety-nine years ago, also in New York, officials identified a sinister Asian invader as the cause of what would become the catastrophe of modern North American history. Livelihoods would be devastated, vast tracts of the country depopulated, violence and crime would explode in the wake of the disaster; whole communities were dragged into drug trafficking. Slow at first to react, the nation soon grasped the full implications of the tragedy. A crash program to defend the homeland was launched with support of the government in Washington. Restrictions on transit were imposed. Chemical warfare was initiated. A scorched earth policy was attempted but ultimately failed because the enemy was too wily. Escaping from the government legions sent to hunt it down and contain its villainy, the menace reproduced invisibly and spread rapidly throughout the population, wreaking havoc with the economy.

For a more innocent and optimistic America, Cryphonectria parasitica was the Osama bin Laden of its day. A cruel and ruthless murderer, it would ultimately slay one in every four American trees. Chestnuts: the dominant tree of the Eastern forests. Four billion in number, ranging from Maine to Mississippi with outliers in the Midwest, they comprised 25-40% of the mixed deciduous hardwoods. Called "Redwoods of the East" because of their towering height and immense girth (some reached 20 feet in diameter, over 100 feet in both height and spread), the trees formed the backbone of the rural economy over the full length of the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. Valued for their straight-grained, lightweight, and rot-resistant timber; the tannins from their bark and wood; and for their tremendous crops of sweet, delicious, nuts avidly eaten by humans and wildlife alike; the Chestnut was without peers hi the vegetable kingdom. Today, all that remain are millions of shrubby stump sprouts (some trees not killed entirely have put up new shoots, but these succumb to the disease after a few years), a handful of erratics in unique situations, and a small number of declining groves in Wisconsin and Michigan that were late to be infected. Victims of the blight, every one.

Every school child in America hears this story sooner or later. It's been repeated in thousands of publications. It's old news, a tragedy long past, if not forgotten: perhaps an early harbinger of America's fall from grace. For the record there are new and promising developments, too. Chestnut enthusiasts began breeding blight resistance (from Asian chestnuts, the presumed agents of infection) into American chestnuts in the late 1970's and expect to have a quantity of blight-resistant seeds and trees for planting out by 2005 or 2006. 1 Other groups have been working to diminish the virulence of the pathogen by inoculating infected trees with another fungal agent from Europe that renders chestnut blight much less harmful, thus allowing the tree to survive and reproduce, a process known as hypo virulence. 2 There have even been attempts to bio-engineer the disease to limit its destructiveness. These are worthy efforts and the individuals involved are dedicated visionaries, but let's step back for a moment from the drama of loss and recovery to examine what may have been behind this shocking set of events.

Understanding the Terrain
To develop a full sense of the crime that happened to the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), we have to understand its life cycle and evolutionary history, its botany, and its role hi the vast biome for botany, and its role in the vast biome for which it had become emblematic. We also need to look at the chronology of its demise to learn what we can about the roots of this epidemic. The pathways of our investigation may take us in some unexpected directions.

When the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica, sometimes called Endothia parasitica} was first identified on American chestnut in 1904 at the New York Zoological Garden, it's likely that the disease had already been at work for as much as a generation. This is inferred because the spread of the disease was very rapid after 1904.

The first Japanese chestnuts were imported to the United States in 1876 for the nursery trade. Japanese chestnuts (C. crenata), which have very large nuts, are the most blight resistant of the main chestnut species. Their Chinese cousins (C. mollissima) share some of this resistance. The European species (C. sativa) was susceptible, and was infected by the blight in the 1950's after its American cousins had already collapsed, but surprisingly, a hypovirulent (less potent) strain of the fungus appeared in Italy and spread through European groves. After about 15 years of infection the European chestnuts seemed to have recovered; they continue to bear commercial crops.

Not so lucky the American chestnut. Soon after the blight was discovered in the Bronx, infected trees were found hi southern New England and New Jersey. The blight began its slow, deadly march south along the Appalachian chain.

A Tree Nonpareil
Chestnuts were more than an important tree in Appalachia - they bad been the ridgepole of the economy. Chestnut lumber was far and away the greatest part of the economic value of the hardwood forest. It was used for everything from barns to caskets. The trees provided the nation's main source of tannin for leather processing. Animals, including large herds of domestic hogs, fattened on the nuts, and perhaps most socially significant, the chestnut provided a ready cash income to millions of rural dwellers. In an era when the daily wage averaged $1.75, chestnuts sold for ten cents a pound. A man working the harvest could easily gather 100 pounds in a day, and could put by a year's savings from a few weeks work. The subsequent loss of the chestnut, simultaneous in most places with Prohibition, drove rural mountain dwellers to "moonshining," converting their corn into mash and thence to bootleg whiskey, as the only way to derive a cash income from the land and to pay the taxes. Later tobacco would join alcohol as a principal replacement for the chestnut in the region's cash economy.

About 1911, as it became obvious that a catastrophe was in the making, the federal government began funding efforts to avert the impending disaster. Plant quarantine legislation was passed in 1912. Fungicides were tried unsuccessfully. Chemical treatment proved ineffective. Attempts were made to cut a wide "firebreak" barrier to prevent the advance of the disease, but the blight jumped past it, spreading as much as 50 miles a year. By 1938, most of the chestnuts were dead. In the early years of the 20th century, scientific forestry was in its infancy. Evolutionary biology was still a relatively new science, and ecology was scarcely known. Although the chestnut emergency stimulated scientific research into the etiology of the fungal disease, and breeding work based on this research appears promising, a holistic view of the phenomenon has yet to emerge. A crisis and bottom-up action appears, through these same tools of analysis, to be random and chaotic. Its true meaning may only be understood by taking a systems approach or top-down view.

Chestnut Botany
Chestnut first appeared in North America about 40 million years ago. It is a member of the beech family, Fagaceae, to which belong also the oaks, all relatively long-lived, crown-bearing nut trees common to the forests of Europe, North America, and east Asia. These trees are all "mast" bearers, that is, they throw large crops of seed every two to three years rather than annually. Their highly nutritious nuts are rich in carbohydrates and less oily that the walnuts and hickories, to which they are more distantly related. The mast provided seasonal food for a huge number of birds and mammals, as well as humans, and the irregular pulsing of the tree's reproductive cycle was an adaptation to this heavy seed predation, a strategy biologists call "satiation." A periodic dearth of mast suppresses populations of the deer, turkey, squirrels, pigeons, and others who prey upon the tree's seeds. This ensures that when abundance returns a year or two later, some of the billions of seeds will survive the (much reduced) onslaught of hungry seed predators.

Anatomy of a Forest Giant
Among the chestnuts, the American produces the smallest but the sweetest nut, a food that was highly prized by native Americans, the European settlers in the region, and by a plethora of wildlife. Within the 200 million acres of its native range, American chestnut dominated the forest. At the time of its collapse it was at least one in every four trees throughout the eastern US. Favouring north- and east-facing cove slopes where it comprised over half of the forest, it often occurred in pure stands. Dominance was supported by it ability to persist shrub-like hi the undergrowth for many years (the reason it has not been eliminated biologically from the forest), its habit of rapid growth following disturbance, and by the production of allelopathic chemicals in its leaves and bark. These substances, leachates of which were constantly dripped into the surrounding soils by regular rains, suppressed the seed germination and growth of other trees such as white pine and hemlock which might otherwise have competed successfully for the same niches chestnut favoured. Great height assured its ability to photosynthesize and bear seed, while rot-resistant wood allowed the tree to persist hi the constantly moist environments of its native terrain.

The chestnut, unlike its cousins the oaks and beeches, with which it was often associated, is a shallow-rooted tree. It achieved its towering heights and great spreads by the use of lightweight wood and a massive reach of lateral roots. It typically grew on well-drained, sloping soils, in moist microclimates under high rainfall regimes, all factors consistent with its rooting habit. So, we should ask: How did this tree, which grew so fast and bore copious crops of nutrient-rich seeds, feed itself?

Like other deciduous species in the Eastern North American forest, chestnut dropped its leaves each autumn to blanket the soils at its roots, and these droppings over millennia built up deep humus-rich soils which, like a battery, were able to hold the vast quantities of nutrient needed to feed the trees. But what charged the battery? Soils in the southern Appalachians (where the chestnuts reached their greatest glory), despite present forest cover, are heavily leached and nutrient-poor. The trees still drop their leaves, but the soil battery has been run down. Some of this, to be sure, is a historic consequence: logging throughout the Appalachians was ruthless and soil erosion losses were immense. But we have to see past this. Chestnuts grew on slopes where soils were always thinner and less fertile than in the bottomlands. Rainfall of 50-60 inches per year promotes soil acidity which in turn ties up some minerals, and together with warm summer temperatures stimulates rapid leaching of the rest. Are we facing a paradox?

The heaviest logging and the most destructive erosion occurred after the chestnut blight began to spread, in the 1920's. In part this was an effect of the blight, which encouraged landowners to cut chestnuts for their wood before, or shortly after infection. With one of every four trees removed from the forest, some in pure stands, a shock wave rolled over the mountains. In the wake of this logging and with the loss of the chestnut gutting the local cash economy, mass depopulation took place through rural Appalachia.

Our question remains, however, what was at the root of this collapse, the end phases of which were so grim? Human activity without a doubt: The chestnuts fell victim to foreign imports. They were an early casualty of global trade: a host of helpful, noble, innocent natives felled by a dastardly foreign villain. That story played well to a society grappling with endemic racism, but it's rather too simple. Something is missing.

Let's consider the heroic success of the chestnut.

The Chestnut Ascendancy
Following the last glaciation and southward retreat of the hardwood forests, the chestnut began to spread out of the southern Appalachian coves where it had taken refuge, back into the Ohio Valley and New England. Pollen records indicate that it reached Connecticut and Massachusetts in large numbers about 2500 years ago. A parallel but even more pronounced spike in New England chestnut populations appears to have followed on the arrival of Europeans in the area some four hundred years ago, suggesting that disturbance favours its spread.

We appear to be dealing with an opportunistic and aggressive tribal tree species that was at the same time long-lived and dependent on relatively high levels of available soil nutrient. It both suppressed unrelated competitors in its own niche by the use of allelopathic chemicals, and outstripped the growth of those close relatives, oak and beech, which could tolerate its chemical effusions. What sustained it?

Plants that produce fruits are always interested in attracting bird or other animal seed dispersers as part of their reproductive strategies. The energetic investment in fruit is paid back by the manifold opportunities to reach distant niches with one's offspring delivered in a high-nutrient packet of fertilizer. But chestnut seems not to have adopted this evolutionary approach; rather it depended on the scatterbrained habit of squirrels to plant its seeds nearby and forget where most of them went! Since the tree was tolerant of under story conditions and content to live in pure stands, distant spread of its progeny apparently wasn't needed, while the advantages of growth close by the protective boughs and chemistry of the tribe were considerable.

Most of the animals that fed on chestnuts were seed predators: deer, turkey, and the now extinct passenger pigeon. While deer populations at upwards of 10 million may now exceed historic levels (because of the increase of patchiness in the landscape and the absence of large predators), and turkey numbers are recovering from a low of 30,000 a century ago to nearly a million and a half today, in sheer numbers, in total biomass, and in the rapidity of cycling of food resources, these surviving creatures were completely dwarfed by the passenger pigeon.

It is to the saga of the pigeon's glory and final days that we must turn for clues to the nutrient base of the chestnut
Reprinted in part from issue PcA #50 with permission from the Permaculture Activist.

The Best Pecan Pie

2/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
1 cup corn syrup
pinch of salt
3 eggs
1 cup pecan halves
Line pie shell with pecan halves center down. Combine the rest of the ingredients, and pour into pie shell. Bake on bottom rack at 425°F for 10 min., Reduce heat to 350°F and cook for a further 30 to 35 minutes or until firm in center. Let cool and serve with whipped cream on top or not. You could substitute walnut halves. I would like to take credit for this easy recipe but I found it on the cardboard card found in frozen pie shells from Tenderflake, credit where credit is due.

Provided by SONG. Feel free to copy with a credit.