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Tour of Chestnut Orchard Inspires Students

VWCC students getting an up close and personal look at the trees growing in the Catawba Breeding Orchard.

This summer, students at Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) in Roanoke, had the opportunity to tour TACF Virginia Chapter’s Catawba Breeding Orchard in Blacksburg. The Plant Life of Virginia class, taught by Heather Butler (forester turned STEM instructor), discovered a pure American chestnut tree during one of their hikes earlier in the summer, which sparked their curiosity and interest in the tree. Butler reached out to Virginia Chapter member Carl Absher, who then set up a tour with the class.

Examining the leaves on one of the American chestnut hybrids in the orchard.

On the day of the tour, Carl shared the story of the American chestnut and gave a description of the backcross breeding program. The group then loaded themselves into several vehicles and headed to the orchard. Student Adam Day was inspired. “Standing next to a functionally extinct species of tree that had died out nearly a century ago certainly evoked a feeling of astonishment and awe. Not only were we standing next to one, but to dozens that will play a part in the reintroduction of this tree back into the forests,” said Day.

The group also carpooled to Paul Hinlickey’s, a resident who lives close by and spoke to the class about how surprised and proud he was to discover a surviving American chestnut on his property. Although the tree has been affected by the blight, it is still living, indicating that it has some natural resistance to the disease. This impressed the students.

The field trip not only proved to be a great learning experience for the class, but offered significant insight to what’s being done to return the mighty giant to its native range. Excited and motivated by the tour, some students even asked about volunteer and internship opportunities with TACF. Two students shared their papers about the tour. Read about Adam Day’s experience here, and click here to get Tyler Adkins’ takeaway from visiting the orchard.