In Pitman, a school project is found uprooted

Posted: July 10, 2012

The fifth graders at Elwood Kindle Elementary School in Pitman spent months digging up the history of the chestnut tree before planting two seedlings bred specifically for longevity. But it was much quicker for someone to yank the fledgling two-foot trees from the ground and uproot the environmental project.

The two chestnut trees, planted in May as part of a fifth-grade science project and national competition, were discovered missing Friday after a student scheduled to tend them visited school grounds.

The wire cages surrounding them were later found on the school's roof. Now, students and staff hope for another chance to plant the species.

The American chestnut once was Pitman's "official" tree, but beginning in the early 1900s, many of this species succumbed to a fungus known as chestnut blight across the East.

The saplings planted by the children were courtesy of the American Chestnut Foundation, which breeds sixth-generation American chestnuts that are able to withstand the blight because they are crossed with Asiatic chestnut trees.

On average, the sixth-generation tree has 94 percent of the characteristics of the original American chestnut. The hardwood tree can grow to more than 100 feet. Its leaves are thin and papery, with large teeth lining the ends, hooking inward.

The fifth graders' project was part of the Disney Planet Challenge, a competition to raise local and global environmental-issue awareness among children. The class was one of two runners-up in New Jersey.

The soon-to-be sixth graders volunteered to care for the trees daily throughout the summer. Next year's fifth graders were slated to pick up where the class left off.

"Even though it's not part of the competition anymore, it's sad that everything they worked for is gone," said Jillian Young, the science teacher overseeing the project.

The American Chestnut Foundation will likely deliver another seedling in the fall or spring. Sara Fitzsimmons, regional science coordinator at the foundation, said she would not bring it until it was much bigger and stronger, to avoid a similar incident from happening.

The fifth-grade class that planted the seedlings will be asked to remain active in the project if and when another is brought to the school, Young said.

Fitzsimmons said the fifth graders took it upon themselves to learn about the chestnut tree and its legacy, providing timber for homes and fences, and giving mast to wildlife. All along, they called, e-mailed, and Skyped with her, she said.

The tree has been "virtually removed from landscape and public opinion for about 100 years," Fitzsimmons said. "Making that connection with kids is so important.

"I'm hoping the next class will have a similar amount of interest," she said.


Contact Angelo Fichera at afichera@philly.com, 856-779-3814, or @AJFichera on Twitter.

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