Clones of Wye Oak at Mount Vernon

2 saplings part of effort to preserve woodlands at Washington's Va. home

April 27, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Two white oak saplings - the first successfully cloned from Maryland's famed, 460-year-old Wye Oak tree - were planted yesterday at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

The Arbor Day plantings marked the start of a 10-year, $150,000 effort to restore and revitalize the first president's beloved woodlands, which have been thinned and weakened by time and hungry deer.

"The planting of the Wye Oak at Mount Vernon is only the tip of the iceberg," said David Milarch, founder of the Michigan-based Champion Tree Project International, a partner in the project with the National Tree Trust of Washington and Neighborhood Friends of Mount Vernon.

"We will be planting a thousand trees in the next 10 years, all ones that George Washington in his own writings suggested be preserved at Mount Vernon," he said.

The 18-inch-tall Wye Oak clones were planted in a 300-acre wood lot at Mount Vernon, where they were immediately fenced off to prevent the estate's deer from eating them.

"Anything that tries to grow is grazed by deer, or the bucks rub their antlers and girdle the tree," said J. Dean Norton, Mount Vernon's director of horticulture.

As the mature trees die, few of their offspring survive to replace them. Without a concerted reforestation effort, and careful protection and tending of the new young trees, Norton said, Washington's woods would become an open field.

Not all the new trees will be clones of national champion trees like the Wye Oak - defined as the largest of their species in the country. But 200 will be. Next year, the Champion Tree Project will plant clones of the national champion white ash and hickory trees.

"Not only are we trying to save the healthiest trees ... we are trying to bring in the strongest trees that might have superior genetics to benefit the entire forest" through cross-pollination, Norton said.

Cloned trees are produced by grafting buds clipped from the desired tree onto roots grown from the seeds of a closely related tree.

If the graft "takes," the tree grows to maturity and is genetically identical to the tree from which the buds were taken.

Normal saplings raised from seeds - or acorns in the case of oaks - carry only half of the genes from the tree that dropped the seeds. The other half come from the tree whose pollen fertilized the seeds.

Unlike animal cloning, which is in its infancy - and hotly disputed where human tissue is involved - plant cloning is thousands of years old. But it doesn't always work.

Maryland scientists tried unsuccessfully for more than 30 years to clone the Wye Oak in an effort to preserve the tree's genetic information before the tree itself dies.

In 2000, Frank Gouin, a retired former chairman of the horticulture department at the University of Maryland who has successfully cloned many other species, finally hit upon just the right combination of technique and timing.

Buds clipped from the top of the Wye Oak were grafted to roots of the tree's seedlings - grown from acorns. They were set out to grow at the Maryland state nursery in Preston, in Caroline County.

"In the first year we had 50 percent success; in the second year we had 90 percent," Gouin said. Now there are more than 30 Wye clones. They're being planted in protected spots on both coasts. "So far, they seem to be doing quite well."

Experts presume the champion trees' genetics hold secrets to their long life and an irreplaceable wealth of knowledge for future scientists.

The Wye Oak has been growing since the early 1500s in what is now a tiny state park in the village of Wye Mills, on the Eastern Shore.

More than 96 feet tall, with a trunk 31 feet in circumference, it has withstood storms, disease, gypsy moths, air pollution, soil compaction, root scuffing by horses and paving for automobiles. Its survival has made it famous.

"The Wye Oak is a lot more famous than people in Maryland probably expect," Milarch said. "Next to the General Sherman [a 2,300-year-old sequoia in California, named for the Civil War general], it is probably the most famous tree in America."

Maryland has 12 other national champion trees, including the country's largest sugar maple and American beech trees.

For more information on the Champion Tree Project, go to

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.