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'Cloning' comes to trees in new preservation push

To keep natural history alive, a New York program tries grafting ancient giants.

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"This is a very different type of work than, say, traditional [conservation] work in Van Cortlandt Park," Mr. Gunther says, referring to the 1,146 acre park in the northwest corner of the Bronx. "Van Cortlandt Park is part of our natural history. You could see it, in some fashion, a thousand years ago."

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The cloning of the 25 trees, on the other hand, represented the preservation of a specific cultural history.

"Trees aren't like buildings, which you can rebuild," Mr. Wells says of the Manhattan trees, which have withstood years of pollution. "With genetics, once they're gone, they're gone."

Wells pointed out that some of the 25 trees were planted in the 19th century, by Frederick Law Olmsted. Best known as the designer of Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Mr. Olmsted was a major advocate of green public spaces; he is regarded as one of the city's most influential architects.

"Most people would like nothing more than to walk under a tree that's identical to one Olmsted planted with his own hands," Wells says. "It's a link to the past."

Cloning is a common practice in forestry and botany, where scientists seek to reproduce healthy, long-lived specimens. David McMaster, vice president and division manager for Bartlett Tree Experts, says there's a widespread public misconception of how the process works. We tend to think of Dolly, he says, the sheep cloned by Scottish scientists in the 1990s, or a scene from a science-fiction movie. In fact, the New York project is derived from something much more "ancient."

"Grafting has been around for hundreds of years," Mr. McMaster says. It's a slow science, conducted in a greenhouse, and the success rate in cloning a specimen "is usually in the single digits. If we hit a home run, it can be in the teens."

And the clone, says James Danoff-Burg, director of environmentally sustainable growth at Columbia University here in New York, isn't a pitch-perfect replication. "Organisms are more than just their genes," Dr. Danoff-Burg says. "They're a reaction to their environment." In other words, the cloned "dinosaur" may look very different from the original. A different air quality might affect the texture of the bark; a different soil might affect its shape,or its size.

Still, Danoff-Burg says he is "exceptionally happy to see this sort of thing happening. The natural world is as much a part of history as the built world," he adds. "We don't tend to treasure it, because we don't see the fingerprints of humanity there."

McMaster calls it a sort of "epiphany." He remembers traveling to Sagamore Hill and identifying a Cousins Beech, which was a favorite of President Roosevelt. Bartlett sampled the tree, and "successfully reproduced it," as part of a larger conservation effort.

Then, a year and a half ago, a storm swept across Long Island, and leveled the Cousins Beech. Just in time, McMaster says, "we were able to close the loop."