Twelve thousand years ago when Native Americans inhabited the mountain gaps and valleys and later as European settlers moved into the area; the American chestnut was the dominant tree of the Southern Appalachians. It provided shelter, food, and trade for all these peoples. Between 1900 and 1908 a fungus known as chestnut blight was introduced through imported chestnut lumber or potted trees from Asia. The final result was the eventual near extinction of this species of giant of the Blue Ridge.
Today we are facing similar threats to native species of vegetation in the Southern Appalachians. The new peril is coming in the form of funguses, insects, and exotic plants.
Hemlock Wooly Adelgid was first found on the east coast in 1951 near Richmond, Virginia. Scientists believe that these microscopic insects originated in Southern Japan. The adelgids are first noted as a foamy looking substance on the bottom of needles and branches. The appearance is that they eventually suck the life from the trees to the point that entire stands on mountain sides quickly die. Along The Blue Ridge Parkway the impact can be seen in the canopies of dead trees in the area of mile post 35 at Yankee Horse Gap and the Peaks of Otter Picnic area where the National Park Service has had to cut down some of these once majestic trees to maintain public safety on trails and roadways.
Dogwood trees provide a beautiful spring displays and provide food sources for birds and animals in the mountains of the East. These native trees are being eradicated by a fungus known as the Dogwood Anthracnose first identified in the mid 1970s. Vistas along The Blue Ridge Parkway that were once carpeted with dogwoods are now completely devoid of these trees. The good news is that individual specimen trees do appear to be resistant to the fungus. Scientists are studying these individual trees attempting to find an answer to this mystery.
Unfortunately there is no easy fix for either of these important species of trees. The treatment in the open forest environment does not appear feasible at this time. One scientist explained to me that the only way to save any single tree is to treat it with as much care as you would give a prized rose bush. Research continues including experimenting with natural enemies for the adelgids and breeding of fungus resistant dogwood species. Scientists will continue to work on these challenges as they are still striving to reintroduce the chestnut to the Southern Appalachian mountain slopes.
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