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.

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