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Old Makes Way for New

National Arbor Day at Mount Vernon Estate.

As the saying goes, "It's an ill wind that doesn't blow some good." That adage was seven feet evident last Friday, National Arbor Day, at Mount Vernon Estate.

It was the day a champion sycamore sapling tree was planted just off the Estate's bowling green. A spot where George Washington had instructed his land manager to plant such trees some 221 years ago. But none has been found at that location.

This past September, Hurricane Isabel came blasting through and split a large white ash tree just off the green, which in turn, fell on a mature southern magnolia cutting it in half. That event of nature opened up the perfect sunlit spot for the newly acquired sycamore, according to Dean Norton, director of horticulture, Mount Vernon Estate.

The Estate's newest addition is a clone from a 200-year-old 80-foot tall champion sycamore in Walla Walla, Wash. A state named for the nation's first President, Norton pointed out.

"We went on a collection trip to Washington State and they allowed us to ship the tree here for planting. We could have planted a bud from the parent tree in the root ball. But this process gives us a live tree. It took about two and a half years to get to this height," Norton explained, pointing to the seven foot sapling.

"Cloning is not new or controversial in trees. Plato cloned the first trees about 3,000 years ago. There are four basic techniques," Norton explained.

JOINING NORTON at the ceremony was Terry Mock, executive director, Champion Tree Project. His organization's mission is to develop cloned trees from champion stock to perpetuate their DNA. He also joined Norton in Washington State to secure the cloned sycamore.

"There are over 8,000 varieties of trees worldwide in danger of extinction. It is our mission to preserve the genetics of the oldest and largest trees worldwide," Mock explained.

Co-Founder of Champion Tree Project, David Milarch, and Mock have worked with Norton previously in cloning and preserving other trees. In 2001, they joined forces to clone 13 trees that have survived at the Estate since the 18th century.

The sycamore clone is the second champion tree clone to be planted at Mount Vernon. The first was a sapling of the 460-year old Great Wye Oak. The parent was lost to an intense storm within weeks of its clone being imbedded at Mount Vernon.

"Mount Vernon is the best partner we have in preserving champion trees," Mock emphasized. "We hope to plant many more champions here."

AS PART OF the Estate's reforestation effort, Champion Tree Project embarked on a 10-year effort in 2002, to save Washington's forests. The National Tree Trust and Champion Tree Project began contributing 1,000 trees to that end. Upon completion, more than 200 of those specimens will be clones of Champion Trees, according to the Estate.

Aiding in the tree planting ceremony last Friday were students from Walt Whitman Middle School on Parkers Lane in Mount Vernon District. They shoveled in the dirt as Norton and Mock steadied the sycamore.

"We found a letter dated 1783 from George Washington to his land manager, Lund Washington, instructing him to plant "trees of sycamore" in the areas called the wilderness. But none have been here as far as we can tell along those areas of the green. They are at other locations on the Estate," Norton revealed.

"The American Sycamore, also called Eastern Sycamore or American Planetree, may have one of the most distinct appearances with its massive trunk, large, crooked branches and "button balls" swinging in the air. The mottled bark flakes off in puzzle like pieces, leaving a yellow and white underbark," according to Champion Tree Project.

"It is essential that we attempt to save these champion trees because they are the strongest. Ninety eight percent of our old growth forest is gone," Mock said.

"We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the genetics of these old trees," he added. "If we're not careful, we'll look like Mars someday."