18, 2003 11:29 PDT
Chips Off the Oldest Blocks
Beth Applegate of the National Tree Trust and Jared Milarch of
the Champion Tree Project hold seedlings from the oldest known
bristlecone pine, Methuselah, age 4,768, and the largest
specimen, Patriarch, a mere 1,500 years old. (Dayna Smith -- The
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2003; Page A01
When they finally found it, high in California's rugged White
Mountains, the tree looked a lot like the other stunted and
windblown evergreens scattered about: a twisted mass of
sun-bleached wood, stubborn green needles and gray crusts of
But this particular bristlecone pine was different. Nicknamed
Methuselah, it has clung to its rocky patch of ground near the
Nevada border for the past 4,768 years, making it the oldest
known living tree on the planet.
Its precise location is known to just a few -- a necessary
protection against souvenir hunters and tourists with penknives,
the U.S. Forest Service says. But having been sworn to secrecy,
Jared Milarch, 23, approached the world's most ancient tree in
October and introduced it to the modern world of science. He was
there to clone old Methuselah -- to cultivate genetically
identical seedlings and then distribute them for study,
celebration and show.
Last week Milarch and his dad, both Michigan arborists, flew
into Washington with two Methuselah seedlings that grew out of
that partly successful effort -- three-inch tufts of baby green
needles to be donated to the U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of
But that's just the beginning, Milarch says. He envisions
Washington's streets eventually lined with clones of many of the
nation's most extraordinary trees -- even dead ones, like
Maryland's famous Wye Oak, which scientists managed to clone
shortly before it blew down last year. The District would become
a living museum of some of the biggest and oldest trees in the
"It beats Jurassic Park," Milarch said last week at
Mount Vernon, where the bristlecone seedlings will be cared for
in a greenhouse until they are formally donated to the botanic
garden next month.
Just a few decades ago, Washington was known as the City of
Trees, but no longer. Urban development and pollution have taken
a heavy toll, and today 23,000 of the District's onetime trove
of approximately 130,000 street trees have been reduced to
patches of dirt. The loss goes beyond shade and aesthetics.
Trees clean the air and reduce runoff and soil erosion.
Now the Milarches -- in conjunction with the National Tree Trust
and the Casey Trees Endowment Fund, a local philanthropy -- are
developing a plan to rebuild and maintain the District's urban
canopy with a novel emphasis on "champion trees," a
term reserved for the largest individuals of each species.
The Milarches, through their nonprofit Champion Tree Project,
have been working with the Tree Trust to make clones of all 850
or so national champions registered by the group American
Forests. Several have been planted at historic sites including
Arlington Cemetery, the U.S. Capitol, Mount Vernon and the Sept.
11, 2001, memorial at the Pentagon. But if the new partnership
works out, many more of Washington's streets and parks could be
sporting genetic knockoffs of the nation's biggest trees.
It takes more than genes to make a champion, of course.
Location, care and just plain luck all contribute to a tree's
longevity and size, so there is no guarantee that a clone of a
champion will thrive in the middle of Thomas Circle. But a tree
is unlikely to grow into a champion unless it has the right
genetic stuff, such as resistance to disease and drought,
horticulturists agree. So if properly selected, the odds of
robust survival are good.
Equally important, said Barbara Shea, president of the Casey
endowment's board, the buzz generated by the seedlings' origins
may inspire community members to give a little extra care to the
trees, a crucial ingredient in the survival of any urban tree.
Imagine making clones of the country's biggest white ash, a
fabulous giant now growing in New York State, and planting some
on New York Avenue, Shea said. Or using clones of Maryland's
hulking Wye oak to fill some of the leafless stretches of
"We Americans love the biggest, the best, the
fastest," Shea said. "If these trees do nothing else
other than get people excited about planting and caring for
urban trees, then that's a success."
One species that won't be growing outdoors in Washington is the
bristlecone; they thrive in high altitudes, rocky soil and
intense sunlight, and the amount of rain that has fallen just
this spring is more than they would want in a decade. But the
quest to clone Methuselah offers a case study in the
psychological power that special trees can have.
Scientists first stumbled upon Methuselah in 1957 while taking
tiny "core samples" that allow them to count the
plants' annual tree rings. Although the average bristlecone pine
is about 2,000 years old, Methuselah proved to be more than
The tree's existence was publicized in a 1958 article in
National Geographic, but its specific location in Inyo National
Forest near Bishop, Calif., was later kept secret by the Forest
Service because of fears of vandalism and the threats that heavy
foot traffic posed for its roots.
Visitors can hike the Methuselah Walk that passes nearby, but
the tree is not marked so hikers don't know which one it is.
Fewer than 50 people today can identify the tree, according to
John Louth, forest manager of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine
As one of those people, Louth guided Jared Milarch and a few
helpers in October after the group gained special permission
from federal officials. On a Milarch home video, Louth can be
seen addressing the group before beginning the four-mile hike to
the site: "I need your word you are not going to publicize
full frontal pictures of this tree," he said solemnly.
The goal was to snip a half dozen branch tips, each one about
four to six inches long, pack them in ice and then FedEx them to
plant cloner Chris Friel at the University of California at
Davis. Timing was crucial. After about 24 hours, the delicate
cells needed to grow into a new tree would die.
When they got to Methuselah, they stared in silence at first.
"The wow factor was really there," Milarch said. The
tree was already growing around the time the stone blocks were
being put up at Stonehenge in England and before the Egyptian
pyramids were built. It was more than 3,000 years old at the
time of the fall of Rome.
Some in the group were detailed as lookouts. If other hikers
came around, Louth told them, then all must scatter so as not to
give away the tree's identity. Milarch snipped the cuttings and
grabbed some pine cones as a backup in case the cloning effort
failed, and the group began the hike back to their car.
At the same time, another member of their group, Terry Mock, was
on the other side of the mountain, snipping samples from
"the Patriarch." Though only about 1,500 years old, it
is the national champion bristlecone -- the largest known
specimen, with a girth of 39 feet -- and was also to be cloned.
Then, crisis struck. A flat tire made them miss the last FedEx
pickup. A photographer in the group agreed to drive the samples
to the San Francisco area where, around midnight, she handed the
cooler with its precious contents to another driver, who made
the rest of the journey northeast to Davis.
That morning Friel got to work, placing the cells in a special
culture where they could grow. No one had ever cloned a
bristlecone, and he could only guess at the best formula.
Ultimately, the effort failed. But other scientists, including
Monterey tree propagator Bill Werner, were able to tease seeds
from the pine cones and germinate them. The result was a total
of 15 seedlings from Methuselah and Patriarch, five of which are
earmarked for Washington greenhouses.
The seedlings are not clones -- genetically identical copies --
but they are close. Bristlecones often pollinate themselves,
making offspring that are near replicas of themselves. Even if a
nearby bristlecone provided the pollen, the average age of the
parents was probably a respectable 3,000 years.
After obtaining necessary permits, the Milarches brought the
bristlecone sprouts to Washington in special tubes that fit into
their shirt pockets.
The seedlings' value as ambassadors for greenery is evident
every time a passing stranger is told about their family
lineage. It's the same reaction David Milarch sees each time he
takes someone to see the champion elm growing near his home in
Michigan. First it's awe, he said. Then there's a desire to
touch and even hug it -- a desire he hopes to engender in urban
"That's the power of big trees," David Milarch said.
"People are more willing to care for them, because they
have so much potential."
Anyone who doubts the emotional and educational potential of
historic trees need go no farther than Woodley Hills Elementary
School in Alexandria, where Dean Norton, the Mount Vernon
Estate's director of horticulture, helped get a clone of the
national champion green ash planted this spring. Norton
surrounded the planting spot with a rope, marking a circle about
22 feet in circumference -- the size of the trunk of the parent
ash -- then released a helium balloon on a tether 96 feet long,
the height of the parent champion tree, so the kids could
picture the enormity of the seedling's genetic twin.
"All 600 kids came out to celebrate," Norton said.
"There was the band, the chorus, kids read poems. And for
the rest of the year, the kids were marching around the tree,
Quite the opposite, he said, of how trees are usually treated on
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
20, 2003 10:20 PDT
In the article, it says "Bristlecones often pollinate
themselves, making offspring that are near replicas of
themselves." Can inbreeding hurt the species in any way if
indeed that's what's happening?
..... I have to say I'm glad they take such seemingly ridiculous
precautions to protect a tree like no other. It would be an
awesome tree to see!
20, 2003 12:04 PDT
Yes, inbreeding will eventually be bad for any species of tree.
actually quite a few bristlecone pines in those groves, and the
can be distributed for several miles away from a parent tree, so
they are capable of inbreeding, there are probably also
seedlings with two
parents that are likely to be more successful than inbred
It sounds like they are using the same strategy to protect the
as I am using for the ancient cedars in the Boundary Waters. I
grove with several 600 hundred year old trees and one 1000 year
that I show to Forest Service staff and reporters, but there are
older trees that I am keeping secret.
In the case of the bristlecones, there is actually another tree
5000+ years (older than the Methuselah Tree), but the scientist
it is not telling anyone which tree it is
22, 2003 12:27 PDT
How successful are inbred trees? Are some able to live a normal
life? If a
tree self pollinates, are the seeds produced just as likely to
has Mom Nature given those less of a chance? Are inbred trees
more prone to
disease, grow slower, less tolerant of any other factors etc.?
What kind of cedars are you guarding?
Now that you mentioned it, there is a specimen older than
remember hearing that on a real well- done special aired on PBS
bristlecones. But they didn't talk about it at all. They just
there's an older one out there...... somewhere.....
23, 2003 05:51 PDT
The success of inbred trees varies a lot, but in general they
vigorous and have a stunted growth form, and are poor
competitors. Many die
when very small seedlings. A few become successful trees.
The trees we have in northern MN are northern white cedar.
24, 2003 21:40 PDT
Age 4,600-Plus, Methuselah Pine Tree Begets New Offspring
By GWEN KINKEAD
The tree known as
Methuselah, famed as the oldest in the world, has just produced
evidence that life begins at 5,000, give or take a few years.
Today that evidence - a
dozen baby bristlecone pine trees - are about nine inches long
with green, bushy tops and long healthy roots.
A mere sprout itself when
the pyramids of Egypt were being built, Methuselah clings to a
dry windswept mountaintop in the Inyo National Forest of
Last fall, there in the
White Mountains, nearly two miles above sea level, a tree farmer
named Jared Milarch harvested cuttings and pine cones from
Methuselah with special permission from the United States Forest
Service, which normally keeps the tree's location secret. After
failing in an attempt to clone the tree, he planted seeds from
the cones in a growing medium and, much to everyone's surprise,
Next month, a ceremony is
being planned to recognize the new offspring, and one will be
presented to the United States Botanic Garden on the grounds of
Experts are unsure whether
Methuselah has borne any offspring in its native setting, a
28,000-acre preserve called the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.
Very few seeds of the eerie small trees, some sculptured by the
wind into fantastic bows and knots and waves, survive in that
harsh environment. But with the help of humans, Methuselah is
known to have reproduced itself at least one other time, in the
"It had a 100 percent
germination rate," said Le Roy Johnson, former director of
the Institute of Tree Genetics in Placerville, Calif., who led
the earlier effort. "That's more than we get on most trees,
let alone the oldest tree in the world." Animals and plants
lose their ability to reproduce as they age.
Bristlecone pines seem
"capable of growing forever" in the mountains, Mr.
The baby Methuselah will
have tight security when it is exhibited at the Botanic Garden
this fall, for fear of theft, said the garden's executive
director, Holly Shimizu. "These pines are very
famous," she said. "We have all read about Methuselah
and heard about it, but so few people actually get to see
When it was shown to the
public for the first time in Virginia recently, people lined up
to be photographed with it, said Mr. Milarch, co-founder of the
Champion Tree Project, a group dedicated to cloning the
champions of America's 800-plus tree species for reforestation.
Bristlecone pines have both
male and female cones and can self-pollinate, but when that
occurs, the offspring are usually faulty. Most likely, the
father was a neighbor whose pollen was carried by the wind or an
insect. Genetic tests will confirm the seedling's lineage.
"The scientific value
of one specimen like this is small," said Christine
Flanagan, public program director at the Botanic Garden, but it
can be "a signpost for other studies."
By taking samples from the
young seedlings, researchers will be able to look for genetic
changes associated with that environment that might account for
the tree's great age, she said.
In trees, unlike in humans,
stress fosters longevity. Methuselah grows in rocky, alkaline,
nutrient-poor soil and is buried under snow most of the year and
blasted by sun and parched for water for the rest. It has a
growing season of just two months in the summer to produce and
store food for the winter. Yet bristlecones have thrived in that
spot for 11,000 years, tree ring analysis shows.
They retain their
bottlebrush needles up to 40 years, four times as long as other
pines, so they need fewer nutrients each year for new growth.
Also, their living tissue is just a strip, in Methuselah's case,
one inch thick and six wide. Their trunks start dying around
1,000 years. What's left, their crowns and the strip of vascular
tissue, grows extremely slowly - one-hundredth of an inch in a
good year, said Mr. Johnson, and often less. Giant sequoias,
some of them 2,000 years old, grow an inch in diameter in a good
Experts think the shrinking
of bristlecones' live tissue is a strategy to balance growth
with available nutrients. But it may contribute to their
longevity in another way as well: bristlecones that grow faster
in lusher conditions are more susceptible to pathogens, said Tom
Harlan, a dendrochronologist who is a consultant to the
University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. The
laboratory's senior scientist, Dr. Edmund Schulman, discovered
Methuselah in 1957 and estimated its age at about 4,600 years.
(The current Forest Service estimate is 4,733.)
Only abrupt climate change
and pathogens attacking exposed roots kill ancient bristlecones,
said John Louth, Forest Service manager of their preserve. For
example, the seedlings of Methuselah propagated in the 1970's
all died when passed out to arboretums at sea level.
Methuselah's new sprout will
not survive in Washington, predicted the National Arboretum's
director, Dr. Thomas Elias. "If the aim is to establish it
in an arboretum, high-altitude ones like Denver are more
suitable," he said.
As for Methuselah, it may
need its new status as world's oldest mother to hang on to its
place in the record books. Researchers are looking right now in
the mountains of China and Russia for older trees. And in fact,
researchers connected with the Arizona lab say that a recent
analysis of a tree boring collected years ago by Dr. Schulman
indicates that one of Methuselah's neighbors is even older. But
out of concern for that tree's safety, they are not disclosing
anything more about it.
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