George Washington Tree Cloned for Arbor Day Plantings

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2004
George Washington had a passion for trees. This Arbor Day, April 30, a
family of Michigan-based shade tree farmers is at the root of two tree
plantings in honor of the United States' s first President.

A clone of the state of Washington's largest sycamore will be planted on Arbor Day at Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate in Virginia. That same day, a clone of one of the last standing trees President Washington planted at Mount Vernon will be planted at a museum on Long Island, New York.

The plantings stem from the efforts of the Milarch family—third- and fourth-generation shade tree farmers in Copemish, Michigan—who in 1997 set out to clone and create a genetic archive of each of the nation's largest trees.

"There are over 8,000 tree species on the global endangered species list," said David Milarch, referring to the World Conservation Union's World List of Threatened Trees. Milarch is a co-founder of the Champion Tree Project. "In the 11th hour and 59th minute we are trying to scramble to save their genes for future study for future generations."

The family reasoned that the largest specimens of each tree species—so-called champion trees—may have the genes required to thrive in an urban environment, where the average life span for a nursery-grown tree planted today is just seven to ten years.

The champions have withstood global climate change, introductions of exotic species, acid rain, auto emissions, light pollution, pavement, and dozens of other human-induced scourges, according to Milarch.

Dean Norton, the director of horticulture at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, said "it's an incredibly noble mission that these guys have embarked on. … These champion trees survived what many, many trees of the same species had not."

To date, Milarch, his sons Jared and Jake, and their colleagues have successfully cloned about 90 of the United State's 826 champion trees. In addition to the George Washigton trees, the Milarchs have cloned several other trees of historic value, such as those planted by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson.

Mount Vernon Trees

The tree-loving Washington planted hundreds of trees at Mount Vernon, but today only 13 remain. The rest fell victim to disease, severe weather, and other forces of nature.

Meanwhile, grazing deer prevent any new trees from successfully taking root in the forests surrounding the estate, according to Milarch. As all the old trees die, the forests of Mount Vernon stand little chance of regeneration.

At the request of the Washington, D.C.-based National Tree Trust, a key Champion Tree Project sponsor, Milarch visited Mount Vernon several years ago to see if he could do anything to start a reforestation program on the estate.

During his visit, Norton pointed out to Milarch the last remaining 13 trees planted by Washington and asked if it would be possible for him to clone one of them as a way to keep alive the last living thing from the life and time of the country's first President.

Though there was no budget within the Champion Tree Project for the cloning of historic trees, the Milarch family decided to donate their own time to Mount Vernon. In 2001 they took genetic samples from the 13 trees—two tulip poplars, two white ashes, one hemlock, one white mulberry, and seven American hollies.

To date, the researchers have successfully cloned ten of the trees. On Arbor Day 2003, the first of these clones—a white ash—was planted at the U.S. Capitol Building. This Arbor Day the second clone, also a white ash, will be planted at the David Conklin Farmhouse, a historic site on Long Island.

On a tour of Long Island in 1790, Washington stopped at the farmhouse and ate a picnic lunch out in the field. The white ash clone will be planted at the picnic site as part of a promotional event for an organization of New York arborists known as Green Point.

"What we are saying is, Washington is revisiting Long Island," said David McMaster, a division manager for Bartlett Tree Experts in Southampton, New York. Bartlett is an international tree-care company and the prime sponsor of Green Point. Bartlett workers also serve as caretakers of the 13 surviving trees planted by George Washington.

Giant Sycamore

Norton and Milarch became close friends during their collaboration to clone the Mount Vernon trees, and Norton joined Milarch on a trip to Walla Walla, Washington. There, the Champion Tree Project was headed to collect a genetic sample from that state's largest sycamore.

While witnessing the sample collection, Norton said, "Wouldn't it be great to plant a Washington State sycamore on the grounds of George Washington's home?"

A search of 18th-century documents found the records of Mount Vernon's caretaker, Lund Washington. In February of 1783 he had noted President Washington's directions to plant sycamores on the bowling green.

"It would appear the planting of sycamore on the bowling green at Mount Vernon is satisfying a 221-year-old request," Norton said.

Milarch thought the idea was great and pledged the first clone of the champion Washington State sycamore to Mount Vernon. "It worked," Milarch said. "We are going to plant that sycamore on the bowling green on Arbor Day this year."

Interestingly, said Norton, the sycamore will be planted in a space vacated by a huge white ash that toppled during Hurricane Isabelle in September 2003. "The storm tore off one-half of the tree and it came crashing to the ground, opening this huge void—almost as if to say, Why don't you plant a sycamore here?'" Norton said.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.