Eight-year field performance of backcross American chestnut (Castanea dentata) seedlings planted in the southern Appalachians, USA
The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is imperiled due primarily to two diseases caused by nonnative pathogens, notably chestnut blight and Phytophthora root rot (PRR) caused by Cryphonectria parasitica and Phytophthora cinnamomi, respectively. Field reintroduction trials are important to test trees bred for blight resistance under forest conditions to quantify survival and field performance in managed stands that represent future restoration sites. We planted 513 pedigreed bare-root (1–0) nursery seedlings into an even-aged regeneration harvest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee, USA to test effects of breeding, genetics, and seedling size class on field performance, including survival, total growth, incremental growth (a measure of growth efficiency), and height growth patterns. Mortality was highest in the first two years after planting, and PRR symptoms coupled with soil and root assays that tested positive for P. cinnamomi suggested this disease was a significant contributor to mortality. Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima), known to be resistant to P. cinnamomi and C. parasitica, had the highest survival (96 percent) compared to American chestnut (34 percent) and hybrid generations, including the BC3F3 generation (41 percent). Less advanced hybrid generations, such as the BC1F3 and BC2F3, had the greatest total height and ground-line diameter (GLD) and height growth efficiencies. BC3F3 generation seedlings were associated with higher-than-expected rates of nominal height growth patterns (i.e., flat growth rates over time or early mortality) compared to Chinese chestnut seedlings. Results, however, indicated the breeding program was successfully integrating desired American chestnut growth traits into the hybrid genome while transferring an intermediate level of resistance from the Chinese chestnut. We identified superior and inferior BC3F3 families that can help inform breeding and restoration efforts. Visually grading seedlings before planting affected survival and growth of generations and genetic families differently, indicating that refinement of nursery production and restoration plantings should consider genetic effects. Across generations, seedling size grading improved total height and GLD growth that would save resources necessary for competition control and animal browsing protection, but large-size seedlings also exhibited lower C. parasitica resistance rankings over time, probably owing to earlier bark fissuring. PRR probably affected outcomes, particularly for hybrid and American chestnut seedlings that have very low levels of P. cinnamomi resistance. Managers could expect advanced breeding generations to perform similarly to American chestnut in growth through the critical stage of early stand development. More durable resistance to C. parasitica and mitigation of PRR through better site selection and/or resistance screening will improve future restoration efforts.