Q&A: Peter Lane

In celebration of Arbor Day (April 29), we offer an expanded 60 Seconds interview with an American chestnut tree champion.

Peter Lane’s earliest exposure to the American chestnut came at the Mohonk Mountain House retreat in New Paltz, N.Y. Later, he made bowls of salvaged wood from the nut and the timber tree as a math and wood-working teacher at the Westtown School. Since retiring in 2004, he’s planted a grove at Westtown, also his alma mater, as part of the American Chestnut Foundation’s breeding program, which is designed to slowly revive this onetime mainstay after the massive fungal blight that began stripping it from the Appalachian forest in the 1870s. In honor of Arbor Day (April 29), Lane explains why he and his wife, Juliet, prefer the pace of watching trees grow. “They don’t grow so fast that you’ll miss something if you don’t do it right this minute,” he says. “Pollinating timing is critical, though. So is beating the squirrels to the harvest.”

MLT: How did you first get interested in the American chestnut?
I met naturalist Daniel Smiley, one of the owners of Mohonk, while I was employed there. He told me about the trees having thrived there. I also saw the rustic railings, gazebos and little bridges, all made of chestnut. I was impressed with its durability. Inside the hotel, a lot of the wood is used as finish. A whole staircase is made of it.

MLT: What is the Westtown grove all about?
We have two plantings. The Class of 2004 Grove is in open land close to the school where there are about 60 trees. Then, there’s the Restoration Chestnut trio up on the north-sloping woods.

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MLT: The Westtown grove began with 15 seedlings. How has the Westtown orchard progressed since then?
Of the 15 original trees, nine are still living. Two have produced nuts. Seven of those nuts were kept in a ziplock bag with a little peat moss in our fridge all winter, then we planted them in late February and early March.

MLT: Is the program working?
We hope all the trees will eventually bear fruit. We’ll plant those seeds where we can on the school’s campus and try to re-establish the tree here. We still want Westtown students to help with care and planting.

MLT: Can you envision a future Arbor Day celebrating the return of the American chestnut?
Yes. But, if by “return” you mean that the woods are again full of these trees that are surviving on their own and re-seeding themselves, none of us will be alive when it happens. I’ve resigned myself to that. What we’re doing is showing the younger generation—students at Westtown, in my case—what these trees look like and why they’re important in our forests.

For the expanded portion of this interview, see page 2 …

MLT: Of the trees you lost from the original 15 seedlings, what went wrong?
The trees that died succumbed either to the blight, animal disturbance, or poor nourishment. We didn’t test the soil when we planted the first 15 in May 2004. If we had, we would’ve found it to be too “sweet,” or basic. So the summer before last, we scattered a product called Osmocote. It helps plants that like acid soil, and it certainly livened up our trees. The trees grew a lot, and their leaves were much greener.

MLT: What’s involved in pollinating and keeping a grove going?
Pollinating happens in late May to mid-June when the female blossoms are just about to open. You get up on a tall ladder with a small film canister of pollen that’s been selected. First, clip off with scissors all of the leaves and other male catkins that were around the female blossoms you want to protect. Then, dust some of the desired pollen onto each blossom. After that, put a paper bag over them and secure each with a twister around the branch. The bags were all numbered for that tree, and other notes are taken, as well, like the date and maybe even the source of the pollen. There are usually lots of bags on each tree. The purpose of the bagging is to control the pollination. When the nuts develop and are harvested, we know who the parents are. Those nuts are used for further research.

MLT: In March 2010, you planted the three nuts of the Restoration Chestnut stock in woods on the Westtown campus where chestnuts previously grew. How are those trees doing, and what’s the key to long-term success?
We looked at the three new ones just the other day. They seemed snuggled down for the winter. I’m pleased to see that they have set healthy-looking leaf buds on their branch ends. They are about 12-feet tall, so we protect them with cylindrical wire cages. We don’t want deer or other animals eating them. Since these are in the woods, we need to keep the canopy open. We had to take down some trees before we planted, and we may need to cut down some more in the spring.

MLT: Have you been involved in any other local plantings?
We went to a planting of two of the new—but not Restoration Chestnut—trees at Chestnut Hill Academy on an Arbor Day a couple of years ago. The students were excited that trees, after which their school is named, were back on the campus. The same spring, or a year later, we attended a planting of two more of the non-Restoration trees on the grounds of Independence Hall in Philly.

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MLT: When traveling, you must have your eye out for native American chestnut trees. Any finds lately?
While Juliet and I were at Mohonk (in New York) for a recent visit, we were directed to a surviving American tree, and we found another one on our own. I was pleased that I happened to be looking at the dead leaves on the road we were walking on, saw chestnut leaves and immediately found the tree. The best is to find some empty burs (the prickly shells that the seeds fall out of). Finding a surviving native American chestnut tree is a higher-level experience for me.

MLT: When you visit surviving American chestnut trees in Vermont and Maine, or speak at garden clubs and Audubon Society gatherings, what do you learn?
Seeing the big surviving trees is inspiring because I realize that, somehow, they dodged the spread of the blight. It’s a fungus, and its spores are carried mostly on the wind; it is everywhere. Either that, or they were able to fight it off. We see evidence of sores in the bark that the tree has scabbed over and gone on with its life.

I love listening to the people who study the blight. To them, it’s just as important as the trees. They grow the blight in labs and use it to test a tree’s ability to resist it by inoculating the tree with a small disc of it. That’s how they select the best trees, and how they’ve arrived at the Restoration Chestnut. It’s a process we learned from Charles Darwin, but sped up a whole lot.

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!