Chestnut orchard donated to Bertrand Township ready to bear its first nuts

Published 2:17 pm Friday, October 1, 2021

BERTRAND TOWNSHIP — Bertrand Township resident Tom Wrasse has been waiting six years for this moment.

Standing outside the Bertrand Township Hall, he reaches up into a tree and pulls down a branch to examine a pair of spiky pods hidden among the leaves. Soon the pods will produce nuts — the first the tree has ever produced — and Wrasse could not be more excited.

“This is the first time the trees have produced the birrs that will eventually shed the chestnuts,” Wrasse said, proudly showing off the bright green pods. “You don’t want to grab them too early, and you don’t want to grab them too late, because once they fall out of the tree, it’s a mad dash between you and the squirrels.”

In 2015, Wrasse, a member of the American Chestnut Foundation and chair of the Bertrand Township Zoning Board of Appeals, spearheaded a local effort to have an American Chestnut orchard planted on the township hall property. He, along with a team of volunteers, planted several trees in an effort to revive the American Chestnut population, a species that was nearly wiped out in the 1900s due to blight. By planting and breeding more chestnut trees, members of the American Chestnut Foundation hope to create a tree that is more resistant to blight.

Wrasse has helped numerous efforts to plant chestnut trees across Michiana, including in Buchanan Township, the McCoy Creek Trail, Fernwood Botanical Gardens, Sodus Township and property owned by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.

“This is a restoration project that is coming to fruition,” he said. “I want people to know the story and be open to assisting with the restoration in their own areas.”

Wrasse has been passionate about American Chestnuts for more than a decade. He said he visited an experimental chestnut orchard with his wife in norther Indiana and learned the story behind the species. After that, he was hooked.

Though the trees planted in his home township are ready to produce their first nuts, Wrasse said the process has not always been easy. Along the way, some of the trees have died due to blight. Despite the hiccups, Wrasse called the program a success.

“This is very exciting,” he said of seeing the first chestnuts ready. “I’ve been waiting six years for this.”

Once the chestnuts are harvested from the trees at Bertrand Township Hall, Wrasse and other volunteers will take them and plant even more trees across the Michiana region to continue American Chestnut restoration.

“We are not done,” he said. “This is not the endgame. This is still a work in progress.”