A love of history and forestry has a Pike County poultry and cattle farmer on track to help restore a species of trees once known as “King of the Forest.”
Joe Murphy, 37, said his fascination with the historic American chestnut trees that once filled the countryside began on a family vacation in Tennessee.
“We were walking around this old cabin, and I noticed some boards that were 2 feet wide and 6 inches thick,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine what tree would have such large boards, and I didn’t recognize the wood. I found out it was from the American chestnut, and it was once as common as oak trees throughout the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. Back then, wood from those trees was used to build almost everything. Even some of the remaining stumps are huge.”
Known for growing straight and tall, the original trees often reached 100 feet with canopies that spread 120 feet across and trunks that measured 13 feet wide, according to history books. Wood from the trees was strong, flexible, and rot-resistant — good for building homes, furniture and barns. Despite their strength, blight — first reported in New York in 1904 — all but eliminated the trees.
Disease spread quickly through the forests and, within 50 years, laid waste to nearly the entire population of American chestnut trees, estimated at nearly 4 billion.
“I know we can’t change history, but we can change things going forward,” Murphy said. “I would love to help re-establish something magnificent that was once here.”
Murphy’s interest in repopulating the species led him to join The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF). With membership, he received sprouted chestnuts and sought advice from wildlife tree specialist Wayne Bassett of Beck’s Turf Farm in Lee County. Following Bassett’s suggestions, Murphy rooted the sprouts in containers.
The improved American chestnut trees Murphy has are the result of cross-pollinated American chestnut trees blended with a variety of the Chinese chestnut. The new trees are 94 percent American with all the characteristics of the original, except they are blight-resistant.
“The efforts to restore the American chestnut are really supported by members like Joe who make this a priority,” said George M. Phillippi, a Birmingham architect and former president of the Alabama Chapter of the TACF. “They are a special group of people who don’t seek instant gratification. What they do is an important act that means an awful lot to our forests and our countryside.”
Murphy will plant the young trees near his home in the Linwood Community in northeast Pike County. He and his wife, Candace, with their two children, James Wade, 3, and Caroline, 20 months, are looking forward to watching them grow.
For now, James Wade and Caroline seem more interested in playing beneath the shade trees in their yard, but their dad hopes one day they can look back on the significance of their tree-planting partnership.
“It will be neat to look back in 50 years and see a tree we planted together on this farm,” Murphy said. “Hopefully, it will spark interest in others to plant more of them. Somebody once said that a squirrel could leave Mississippi and go all the way to Maine without touching the ground, just by jumping from one American chestnut tree to another. That would be amazing to see.”