GMO Trees


Some time ago I wrote a post suggesting the need for genetic engineering to endow American trees with resistance to the introduced, non-native pests that are ravaging our forests.   Recently I learned about progress in a project designed to do precisely that.

chestnut photo2
American chestnuts before the blight — Forest History Society

A century ago. the American chestnut was one of the foundations of the eastern North American forest; indeed, in some areas of Connecticut (the state in which I live) American chestnuts once constituted 50% of the hardwoods. In the early years of the 20th century, however, a fungal blight introduced accidentally from Asia killed nearly all of the mature trees. Today, almost all that survives is occasional sprouts from the roots of blight-felled trees.

Efforts have been made since the 1930’s at least to breed blight-resistant chestnuts by crossing resistant Chinese chestnuts with our vulnerable natives.  It has been a slow process because trees take so long to mature sexually. Success has been limited, and what blight resistant trees that have resulted are no longer entirely of the American type genetically.

But scientists at the State University of New York Syracuse School of Environmental Science and Forestry some time ago introduced a single gene from a wheat plant into American chestnuts that has allowed the resulting trees to tolerate without damage the blight fungus. Currently, SUNY Syracuse is partnering with the New York chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation in applying to the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA and the FDA to have the trees “deregulated” – that is, to secure permission to begin crossing the transgenic trees with wild-type American chestnuts and create a broad gene pool of resistant trees to re-introduce back into the woods.

Allen Nichols
Allen Nichols with sprouts from an old chestnut roots

Allen Nichols, president of the New York chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, says that he hopes to receive the go-ahead from the EPA within 3-5 years. If this happens, a magnificent native will be returned to our woods, and a precedent set for dealing with other introduced tree diseases and epidemics.   Indeed, SUNY Syracuse is already at work on an American Elm that is resistant to the Dutch Elm Disease.

For more information visit or contact the NY chapter of TACF at

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. This is probably the only GMO that I’m in favor of. I hope the genetically modified chestnuts are given the EPA’s go-ahead. Very interesting post.

    • Not papaya? How about bananas? One was in danger of disappearing, but brought back as a crop in Hawaii. And now the Cavendish banana is in real danger of meeting the same fate as the Gros Michel banana… so again we will hear the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

      Then there is the danger of certain diseases destroying cacao crops, and also citrus greening disease impacting oranges and other citrus fruit.

      Are chestnuts as big a food source as bananas, oranges and cacao? Though I suspect that the hardwood would be great. I had no idea they grew that big.

      Now here is the big question: what do you have against Golden Rice (this is a link)? It is an effort to increase Vitamin A in the diet of certain populations to prevent blindness.

  2. Why would this be the only type of gmo you’re interested in? I’m quite looking forward to cracking the nitrogen fixation nut in cereal grains too.

  3. I would like to point out that just as the cross bred tree would no longer be an American Chestnut, the genetically modified tree would no longer be an American Chestnut. I am adamantly against the romanticizing of this process. We (as usual) have no idea what we are setting in motion.

    • I have all sorts of non-wild type plants in my garden (not to mention non-wild type gray wolves sleeping on my sofa). The man-made genetic genie is already out of the bottle.

      • 🙂

        I saw an article about those non-wild wolves in last Tuesday’s New York Times. My grandparents had one in the form of a miniature poodle.

  4. If the FDA were protecting the environment and the public health with caution and convincing safety tests, I would applaud this type of tree. The problem is not necessarily modifying genes from other species, but the great probability of hazardous effects given the lack of environmental and human health testing.

  5. Just a note on where I get some of my information. I have a bit in common with the author, of the blog link that is below, because I tried to grow lemons, while he tried bananas (he lives in Connecticut, that saga is discussed in a podcast he does with two of his brothers and a couple of friends: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, the link to that is on the following link):

    By the way, I really hate spider mites. My lemon tree saga is now a family joke.

    Also, why does this site not have a different text color for URL links, or any other indication that the text could be lead you to another internet page? That is both weird and annoying.

  6. I must agree with Astrid Bowlby and add, that we seem to have lost our faith in nature laws in favor of science. Not at all am I against science, but as other species manage to adapt (flora as well as fauna), the ones that can’t may simply have outlived their time. Let’s get down to Earth – humans are not going to stop producing waste and polluting the planet. It has come down to survival for plants, too. And please don’t get me wrong – I’m a genuine plant lover and it pains me to watch how entire forests or types of trees get wiped off in a short moment, because of our consumer’s drives, but it is what it is. Is interfering with nature laws ans the structure build in billions of years and set by the nature itself going to help? I fairly doubt it.


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