bristlecone cloned   David Yarrow
  Jun 18, 2003 11:29 PDT 
Taking 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 Washington Post)

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 bark.

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 Capitol Hill.

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 land.

"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 Maryland Avenue.

"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 double that.

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 Forest.

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 settings.

"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, protecting it."

Quite the opposite, he said, of how trees are usually treated on playgrounds.

2003 The Washington Post Company

Re: bristlecone cloned    Rory Nichols
   Jun 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!

Re: bristlecone cloned    Lee E. Frelich
   Jun 20, 2003 12:04 PDT 


Yes, inbreeding will eventually be bad for any species of tree. There are
actually quite a few bristlecone pines in those groves, and the pollen goes
can be distributed for several miles away from a parent tree, so although
they are capable of inbreeding, there are probably also seedlings with two
parents that are likely to be more successful than inbred seedlings.

It sounds like they are using the same strategy to protect the bristlecones
as I am using for the ancient cedars in the Boundary Waters. I have a
grove with several 600 hundred year old trees and one 1000 year old trees
that I show to Forest Service staff and reporters, but there are other
older trees that I am keeping secret.

In the case of the bristlecones, there is actually another tree that is
5000+ years (older than the Methuselah Tree), but the scientist who found
it is not telling anyone which tree it is


Re: bristlecone cloned    Rory Nichols
   Jun 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 germinate or
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 Methuselah. I
remember hearing that on a real well- done special aired on PBS about
bristlecones. But they didn't talk about it at all. They just mentioned
there's an older one out there...... somewhere.....


Re: bristlecone cloned    Lee E. Frelich
   Jun 23, 2003 05:51 PDT 


The success of inbred trees varies a lot, but in general they are less
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.

bristlecone longevity    David Yarrow
   Jun 24, 2003 21:40 PDT 
     At Age 4,600-Plus, Methuselah Pine Tree Begets New Offspring

      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 east-central California.

      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, they sprouted.

      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 the Capitol.

      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 1970's.

      "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. Johnson said.

      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 it."

      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 year.

      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.

      David Yarrow
      Turtle EyeLand Sanctuary