WYE MILLS -- Many mighty oaks have grown from little acorns dropped by Maryland's Wye Oak during its 450-year life span, but state foresters have begun a difficult grafting process they hope will produce the tree's first genetically pure offspring.
As a small group of guests watched from the ground Friday, a forester some 60 feet overhead in a bucket carefully cut several handfuls of new limb growth, the initial step in what could be a 20-year process to develop a clone of the historic tree.
The cuttings or scions will be grafted onto white oak stock sometime next month and watched closely at the state Department of Natural Resources' Buckingham Forest Tree Nursery near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Foresters said a successful clone will perpetuate the family line of the Wye Oak better than trees grown from its acorns, which are cross-pollinated by nearby oak trees and not technically unadulterated plants.
"A clone is one of one," said Walter Orlinsky, who heads the DNR tree planting program.
One reason state foresters want to reproduce the Wye Oak, which is designated the state tree, is that some tree experts believe the giant oak's days may be numbered.
Last year, the Wye Oak produced an abnormally large crop of acorns.
Mr. Orlinsky said it is unclear if the bumper crop was a result of the drought or because the Wye Oak, mysteriously sensing it would die soon, mustered a great effort to reproduce itself through its seeds.
Although tree specialists do not know the Wye Oak's exact age, they believe it has been standing for at least 4 1/2 centuries, making it a grown tree when the Eastern Shore was colonized by European settlers.
The Wye Oak is believed to be the largest white oak in the nation.
It is trimmed periodically and stands at nearly 80 feet.
It has a trunk diameter of 31 feet and a crown spread of more than 100 feet.
The Wye Oak is one of two surviving original "national champion" trees listed on a forestry register in 1909.
The tree, which stands in a small state park in Wye Mills in Talbot County, is maintained by a private contractor.
Over the years, 126 steel cables nearly four miles long have been fastened through its limbs to keep the heavy timbers from breaking under their own weight.
"You cannot stand under this tree without being awed," said state Forester John Riley, an observer of yesterday's Friday's cutting process.