University of New England students Nicole Belknap and Ryan Roseen dig a hole in the dirt on the Biddeford campus on Friday afternoon during an American chestnut tree planting project in celebration of Earth Day.

University of New England students Nicole Belknap and Ryan Roseen dig a hole in the dirt on the Biddeford campus on Friday afternoon during an American chestnut tree planting project in celebration of Earth Day.

BIDDEFORD — In 1900, there were more than 4 billion American chestnut trees from Maine to Alabama. But in 1904, a blight fungus accidentally imported from Asia decimated the species.

In honor of Earth Day on Friday, a group of University of New England students set about to help reintroduce the beautiful tree in Maine by planting 60 American chestnuts in a wooded section near the campus’s Welcome Cottage.

The planting of the trees was a senior capstone project for four UNE environmental science students, and open to anyone who wanted to pick up a shovel or lend a hand.

One of the students, Kat Santarpio, said she and other participating students wanted to gain in-depth knowledge on a topic and have an experiential learning project.

Environmental Studies Prof. Thomas Klak said the seedlings, saplings and seeds that the students were planting were specially bred through six generations of cross-breeding to be fifteen sixteenths American chestnut and one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut. This allows the trees to be tall like a standard American chestnut yet be resistant to blight, said Klak.

Glen Rea, chairman emeritus of the American Chestnut Foundation, said the saplings, seedlings and seeds that were being planted Friday afternoon came from the foundation’s research farm in Virginia. The American chestnut can grow up to 100 feet tall, and can live up to 400 years, said Rea.

The trees are significant because they are rot-resistant, and the durable wood makes attractive furniture, said Klak and Rea. The tree’s nuts are also a highly nutritious source of food for animals.

Students will monitor the plants, factoring in soil types, sun exposure and age of the tree planted, said Santarpio.

She said there’s a survival rate of 10 to 25 percent, and she’s optimistic.

“Even though I’m graduating, I can’t wait to come back and see how many survive,” said Santarpio.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or [email protected]


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