This Potomac Crossing Bridges History

This Potomac Crossing Bridges History

Wye Oak Cloning Under Way

Who said cloning was bad? Don't tell that to the arborists at the Mount Vernon Estate.

"The reason for cloning Champion Trees is to save the gene pool," said Francis R. Gouin, professor emeritus, University of Maryland.

Last Friday morning the weather dawned bright and clear for Arbor Day. A good omen for the rededication of life. And that is exactly what they did at Mount Vernon with the reinitiation of a clone of the famous Wye Oak to the soil.

George Washington the farmer, the explorer, the surveyor of the landscape of America, would have been proud that nature had provided the bond across the Potomac. A generational offshoot of the Wye Oak of Talbot County, Md., found a home in the soil of Virginia.

As a living clone of the largest white oak in the nation, this tiny sapling was the first planting in a natural setting of the mammoth tree. Considered by many arborists to be the most spectacular tree in the original 13 colonies, the Wye Oak has survived both nature and man during its half millennium journey on this planet.

"These trees have survived the test of time, and before they die of natural or other causes, it is to our advantage to clone them. Simply growing their seedlings is not sufficient, because the seedlings only contain one half the genetic makeup of the existing tree," Gouin explained.

OF ALL PEOPLE, he should know. Gouin, a retired University of Maryland horticulture professor, cracked the genetic code of the Wye Oak three years ago. He oversaw the offspring's planting at the Estate.

"I believe that the propagation of national heirloom trees opens a whole new market for the nursery industry ... Heirloom Trees," he theorized. The Wye Oak, the largest white oak in the United States, measures 79 feet high, 31 feet in circumference, and nearly one-half acre across its crown. It has survived for nearly 500 years.

It is one of only two trees to remain national champions since the American Forestry Association began its contest in 1940. In 1939, the state of Maryland purchased the Wye Oak from its last private owner. The Maryland legislature declared it the living symbol of the state tree, the white oak.

The planting of the sapling Wye Oak was one of three dozen trees similar to those planted in the 18th century, which were reintroduced to the soil of Mount Vernon at the commencement of the reforestation of George Washington's land.

THE NATIONAL TREE TRUST and the Champion Tree Project will contribute 1,000 trees to the reforestation effort over the next decade. At least 200 of those trees will be clones of Champion Trees, the largest and often the oldest of a given species.

To be planted throughout the 300-acre forest site, the types and species of trees are either mentioned in Washington's correspondence and diaries or are native to the forest surrounding the Mount Vernon Estate. The decline in the regeneration of Mount Vernon's forest is attributed to sprawling suburbia, according to arborists.

But the Wye Oak cloning project is not all altruistic. It has both commercial and medical aspects.

Clones could be a boon to the exploding nursery industry. A Wye Oak at every suburban nursery is what business dreams are made of, according to those backing the 30-year Wye Oak project. And then there are the medical possibilities.

On the human side, David Milarch, founder and president of The Champion Tree Project, cited the possibility that scientists studying these sturdy and enduring specimens might find clues to treating mankind's maladies. As an example, he noted the Pacific yew was discovered to possess cancer-fighting elements.

Cloning the Wye Oak is also significant for its scientific benefits to other tree species. Granddaddy "Wye" has never suffered from a common fungus found on other oaks and apparently has the ability to repel gypsy moths. "It has to be something in the genes," Gouin speculated.

The powers that be at the Mount Vernon Estate often make the same speculation about the late head of that household. George and the Wye Oak ... a fitting combination?