Trees show off their colors now

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Chestnuts, once abundant, may once again feature prominently in American forests. —Photo by Susan Safford

Full-blown autumn overtakes the Island. Watch for deer while driving, especially at dusk and dawn.

This year the trees are coloring beautifully! As they leach chlorophyll at varying rates it is interesting to observe differing species emerging individually from the general green backdrop. In late summer it is easy to pick out the beetlebung trees, as they begin to redden long before any other healthy trees do, and most people can identify a maple or clump of sumac, both of which glow dramatically. Now, the hickories are golden, the sassafras “mittens” show clearly when they are apricot and pink, and many white oaks possess a sultry maroon coloration.

If you want to become more aware of trees, the autumn season is a good opportunity to pick up on characteristics and differences. The ID’d specimens at Polly Hill Arboretum are also a good place to start, for those who are developing an interest in trees.

Green beans

With apologies to container gardeners, for whom bush beans might be a better choice, if you can grow only one green bean, grow pole bean ‘Fortex.’ It is a filet-type bean of great length and quality. My row of ‘Fortex’ has been bearing heavily since mid-July and as of late-October is still yielding long, tasty beans, sweet and brittle.

In small gardens where space is at a premium, up is the way to go. Having a larger garden, I have room for an entire row of poles supporting three different varieties of pole beans. One teepee should suffice in gardens where that is not possible.

The marketed life

We live in an age of marketing, which manipulates our perceptions of how to do things in many arenas, gardening not excepted. The images that are propelled directly into our brains through multi-media, and advertising of “products for better living,” reinforce all sorts of green industry fallacies and a culture of Lookism — empty form over function.

To name just a few easy targets: dyed mulch (let’s not even mention synthetic mulches); tree mutilation through incorrect notions of pruning; well-intentioned but unthinking spraying schedules to kill life-forms of all kinds; and the “chem-lawn” approach to lawn perfection.

It is not only in the garden: misleading perceptions of what constitutes good order in the home also contribute to our delusions. Many households contain arsenals of “good housekeeping” products — under the sink, in the laundry, in the basement — which are harmful to the humans and pets within, maybe more so than to the products’ ostensible targets.

Chestnut season redux

There is an American tree that is unlikely to be identified on Martha’s Vineyard this autumn. Islanders — nor, for that matter, most mainlanders — are not familiar with the American chestnut, the once common, majestic tree was virtually wiped out by a devastating blight over a century ago.

Historically, the tree and the nut have been a rich food and lumber resource, going back to prehistoric times, and, along with other nut harvests, autumn is chestnut season.

Almost everything one reads about the towering American species contains the phrase “the redwood of the Eastern forest.” What is known as the Chestnut Ecosystem (chestnut trees, perhaps as many as 10 million, being the foundation species), supported bear, elk, squirrel, deer, raccoon, mice, wild turkey, and enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, as well as the human populations of their range.

Although it will be a while before a blight-resistant American chestnut (Castanea dentata) returns to our landscape and diet, it is likely to happen in our lifetime, and maybe much sooner. Work to breed, cross, and re-breed a resistant tree is on-going and The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), www.acf.org reports optimistic developments. An article in the summer 2014 issue of the MOFGA Journal quotes TACF’s chief scientist, Fred Hebard: “We are on the verge of really restoring the species.” To combat blight, TACF hybridized American with Chinese chestnuts, the species that originally spread the blight and which has resistance to it.

The resulting progeny were then successively back-crossed until they became 15/16ths American. But every backcross, although necessary to recover desirable American traits, also reintroduces the genes for blight susceptibility from the American parent. In order to remove those genes, the next steps at TACF were intercrosses. In the first intercross, the most blight-resistant 15/16ths American trees were crossed with other blight-resistant 15/16ths American trees. Again, only resistant seedlings are saved.

It is painstaking work, but what is at stake is the restoration of an entire ecosystem, something that has never been previously attempted! The volunteer-run TACF, a non-profit, has racked up an inspiring record in its 30 years of existence. One result of the effort is the Restoration Chestnut 1.0 trees, currently being grown in TACF orchards across the original chestnut range. Another ambitious program is using blight-resistant chestnuts to restore the ravaged areas of mountaintop removal and strip mining throughout Appalachia.

Due to their unfamiliarity in our foodscape, what to do with chestnuts is a question. To shell, cut an X in the flat side of the nut with a paring knife or pointed scissors. Place in water to cover and bring to boil for about eight minutes. Drain a few at a time and while still warm, peel off the outer husk and inner membrane. Cut away wormy or discolored parts. At this point the nuts may be frozen; added to seasonal dishes, such as Brussels sprouts with bacon or sausage and chestnuts; or turned into puree for baking or desserts. Chestnut flour also offers an alternative for gluten sensitivities.

To puree, cover shelled chestnuts with milk or fresh water, and simmer until they are tender. Drain and mash with a potato masher or ricer, and then use as directed in recipes such as Mont Blanc or chestnut cookies.