NYC To Clone Historic Trees

Posted on: January 31st, 2008 by Preservation magazine

Central ParkOn a clear September day in 1776, smoke rose from lower Manhattan as the British advanced into the city. From his headquarters on the Morris-Jumel estate, Gen. George Washington may have paused in the shade of a young elm tree to take in the scene.

Today, that tree still stands in what is now Washington Heights, though at about 110 feet tall and almost six feet in diameter, it is doubtful that Washington would recognize it. Affectionately known by locals as "the dinosaur," this living witness to those events 230 years ago it is now one of 25 trees in New York City that will be preserved—through cloning.

As part of Mayor Bloomberg's campaign to plant one million trees in the city in the next decade, Connecticut-based Bartlett Tree Experts is donating 250 trees to the city, all genetic copies of historic trees found in the city's five boroughs. Cuttings from the trees were taken earlier this month and sent to an Oregon nursery, where they will be grafted onto roots to create "clones" that will be planted throughout the city.

"There's just a heightened level of interest in the city's trees," says Adrian Benepe, commissioner of parks and recreation. "If we can get more people interested in trees for their historic association, it's a good thing." Older trees, he says, are a reminder to people of the long-term benefits—economic, environmental, and aesthetic—of planting trees.

Although the new trees will not look exactly like their landmark parents, they will have all of the characteristics that have helped them thrive in a harsh urban environment for decades and even centuries.

"What all the trees have in common is that they are very large examples of their species," Benepe says. "They've had to withstand all these abuses and indignities, and they're still going."

Though Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1857, is a haven for 26,000 of the city's five million trees, only a handful are more than 100 years old, and only about 10 are as old as the park itself. On the street, the average life span of tree is only about seven years. The city hopes that the offspring of the cloned trees will beat those odds.

"We think it's a good move to try to maintain that [genetic stock], preserve it," says Kenneth Karp, Bartlett spokesman. "Trees have a lot of sentimental value."

 - Stephanie Smith

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