Mission Impossible?

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Published on: Dec. 13, 2012

they can bear much fruit,” he says.

Succumbing to a different ailment, Ozark chinquapins are maligned by the same Chinese chestnut blight responsible for decimating the American chestnut of the eastern United States. Relation to such a magnificent tree carried an unforeseen price in disease susceptibility for the chinquapin.

Agents of Possibility

A sign of good fortune for both tree species is that in this “Mission Impossible,” there’s more than one hero fighting for success. Landowners, MDC, and a citizen-led, not-forprofit organization have joined forces to save the trees.

Bollinger County resident, Nick Elfrink, is raising butternut trees on his property after picking up nuts in 1987 from butternuts that were next to Trace Creek near Gypsy, Mo. When he moved into his house on the other side of Marble Hill a year later, he planted the nuts on his property. Twenty-five years later, the trees are thriving, with no sign of disease.

“They continue to mature, bloom, and produce nuts every year without much maintenance on my part,” Elfrink says.

Elfrink collects the nuts and plants them near his garden and in his woods. He says that eight or 10 of the trees are growing well. Besides spreading seedlings across his property, Elfrink manages his tree stand by thinning out older red oaks to grant sunlight to the younger trees.

Conservationists hope efforts like these will help existing trees grow and stay healthy long enough to develop a resistance. Although the butternut is the canker’s only host in Missouri, Calvert says a few individual trees, like Elfrink’s, have been found to have little or no signs of canker.

“If seeds can be collected from trees that show no signs of infections, but have come in contact with the disease, then resistant seedlings could be nurtured,” Calvert says.

According to Hoss, the state nursery purchases butternut seed from landowners and seed collectors every year. They mix it and grow as many seeds as they can while continuing to scatter butternut seedlings on Missouri’s conservation areas.

“We’re trying to keep the species alive on the outside chance that resistance is found or the disease disappears,” Hoss explains.

Hoss hopes more landowners will share seeds to meet the demand. Generally, Hoss says the nursery receives only 250 to 500 pounds of seed per year, and sometimes not even that much. Although this yields several thousand seedlings, it’s not nearly the 1,500 pounds of seed the nursery would need in order to provide seedlings for private landowners.

The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation, a group of citizens who are determined to save the chinquapin, hopes to protect their favorite species as well. Their goal is to restore the Ozark chinquapin to its native range and establish a viable chinquapin seed base.

“Through research and cross-pollination of surviving trees, we hope to develop a pure Ozark chinquapin that is blight resistant,” says the group’s president, Steve Bost. He adds that the group will make chinquapin seeds available to anyone who wants to help reestablish the tree to its native range.

You Can Be an Agent, Too

Ultimately, more people must learn to identify and care for the few remaining chinquapin and butternut trees to ensure the survival of these species in Missouri. On private property, landowners can help by identifying butternuts on their property and taking care to preserve them as long as possible, Hoss says.

Landowners should cut out nearby trees that are competing for sunlight, and take care not to damage the tree with lawn mowers or other equipment. Wounds can weaken a tree and allow insects and diseases to access the inner bark, which speeds up the decline process.

“We hope to help the trees live long enough to produce nuts so more seedlings can be planted as the older trees die out,” Hoss says.

By working together, conservationists hope the two trees can go from “Mission Impossible” to “Mission Complete,” making Missouri forests a better place for wildlife and future Missourians.

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