Taking Root

Ancient Tree to Be Planted at Capitol

Posted June 27, 2003 at 3:32pm

The “holy grail” of trees may one day become a permanent part of the Capitol grounds.

The Botanic Garden will receive two seedlings from the oldest known tree on earth, a 4,768-year-old bristlecone pine nicknamed “Methuselah” in California’s White Mountains, later this summer.

The seedlings, currently guarded at Mount Vernon, will be housed at the Botanic Garden’s production facility in Anacostia for several years until they are mature enough to move to a permanent location at the base of the Capitol, said Holly Shimizu, the garden’s director.

The seedlings — 3 inches tall with about 6 inches of roots — have made an eight-month journey from their native location on the famed bristlecone in the eastern California desert near the Nevada border.

In October 2002, David Milarch and his 23-year-old son Jared are co-founders of the Champion Tree Project International, received permission from the U.S. Forest Service to take snippings from the tree. Their organization is dedicated to growing seedlings from “champion trees,” the designation given to the largest tree of any one species based on circumference, height and width of branch spread.

“We had to have a special forest service guide with us,” said David Milarch, who along with the rest of his team has sworn not to reveal the location of the protected tree.

He estimated that fewer than 50 people know the location of the tree, which is kept secret by the U.S. Forest Service to prevent curious observers from taking branches or otherwise harming the tree.

The team then brought the snippings to the University of California at Davis, where doctoral student Chris Friel attempted to make the first clone, creating an exact copy of the tree.

The efforts failed because they didn’t have the proper tissue, Friel said. But the team was instead able to grow seedlings from seeds of the plant’s own pine cone.

In early June, the Milarchs flew from their home in Michigan to Washington, D.C., with the seedlings in their front shirt pockets.

The two got odd looks and curious questions from passersby at the airports.

“They stop dead in their tracks, and when they see what they are, they just try to touch them,” David Milarch said. “They have an amazing effect on every human being that sees them. It was like carrying the Holy Grail.”

Although the seedlings have survived for several months, Thomas Elias, the director of the National Arboretum, said it is unlikely that the bristlecone pine would survive in Washington’s climate.

“It’s conceivable, but to expect to see a nice, full-grown bristlecone pine here is a little too optimistic,” he said, adding that he wishes he could be more encouraging. “It’s one of my favorite trees. … It’s very majestic.”

Despite Elias’ doubts, Shimizu said that once the plants are transferred from the production facility to the main garden they will stay in the climate-controlled areas inside the garden.

“They’ll probably be in the oasis or desert sections,” she said. “If they’re smallish, we’ll make sure to put them out of reach, but I don’t think we’ll do anything extraordinary.

“We’re very selective with what we take, but because of this plant’s unique history, it’s a great plant for us to take and grow — we can grow it here.”

David Milarch believes the seedlings will survive and grow, especially under the watch of the Botanic Garden. He hopes they will survive when they are one day moved outside.

“I think with a little TLC they’ll do just fine. … They belong to the people of the United States of America,” he said of choosing the Capitol as the new home for the seedlings. “We’re going to share them with the world.”

Although last fall’s attempts to clone the tree failed, David Milarch said that in about a year the seedlings will be big enough to make another attempt at cloning and the Milarchs plan to seek permission to take more samples.

“When we make the world’s first clone of something that is 5,000 years old it will really be a big deal,” he said.

In addition to bringing Methuselah to Washington, the Milarchs, with the National Tree Trust and the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, are working to help recreate much of the District’s previously existing tree canopy.

The Casey Trees Endowment Fund invited the Milarchs to be a part of its local efforts after learning of the group when they planted the only living memorial at the Pentagon.

The endowment estimates that recreating a city of trees will require about 23,000 trees to fill the locations for trees on D.C. streets that are vacant or contain dead ones. The endowment hopes to fulfill that goal during the next 10 years, bringing six to eight champion species of trees to D.C. streets bearing the name of the tree’s state of origin.

So far the Champion Tree Project and the National Tree Trust have already planted champion trees at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Mount Vernon, Arlington National Cemetery and at a Sept. 11, 2001, memorial at the Pentagon.

For Arbor Day, the groups, along with the Mount Vernon Women’s Association, planted the only cloned tree currently at the Capitol — a 6-foot clone of a white ash George Washington planted 213 years ago at Mount Vernon.

The tree, located on the West Front lawn, is doing well and doesn’t require any special care, said Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol.