With the transport of plants around the globe, exotic species can readily spread disease to their native relatives; however, they can also provide genetic resistance to those relatives through hybrid breeding programmes. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was an abundant tree species in North America until its decimation by introduced chestnut blight. To restore chestnut in North America, efforts are ongoing to test putative blight-resistant hybrids of Castanea dentata and Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), but little is known about the ecology of C. mollissima. In a forest in northeastern USA in which C. mollissima has become established, we explored questions of stand dynamics, health and genetic relationships of C. mollissima offspring to an adjacent parent orchard. We found that C. mollissima was adapted and randomly distributed among native species in this relatively young forest. The genetics of the C. mollissima population compared with its parents indicated little effect of selection pressure as each of the parent trees contributed at least one offspring. The ease with which this exotic species proliferated calls to question why C. mollissima is rare elsewhere in forests of North America. It is likely that a time window of low animal predation allowed seedlings to establish, and the shallow soil at this site limited the maximum forest canopy height, permitting the characteristically short-statured C. mollissima to avoid suppression. Our results indicate that because C. mollissima exhibited pioneer species characteristics, hybrids between C. mollissima and C. dentata have the potential to be successful pioneer species of future forests in North America, and we challenge the paradigm that exotic tree species are wholly detrimental to native biodiversity. We contend that exotic tree species should be assessed not only by their level of threat to native species, but also by their potential positive impacts on ecosystems via hybrid breeding programmes.
Dendrochronology, distribution, ecology, hybrid, invasive, root DNA barcoding
Date of this Version
Miller, A., K. Woeste, S.L. Anagnostakis, D.F. Jacobs. 2014. Exploration of a rare population of Chinese chestnut in North America: Stand dynamics, health, and genetic relationships. AOB PLANTS, 6.