Before the state's most majestic trees die off, arborists work to clone copies for future generations.
By LANE DeGREGORY
Published January 16, 2004
[Photo: Champion Tree Project International]
An arborist climbs The Senator, the national champion bald cypress in Seminole County, to collect tissue for cloning. It stands 118 feet tall with a 35-foot circumference and is the largest tree by volume east of the Rockies.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Dr. John C. Alleyne of the University of Florida and Florida Botanical Gardens at Pinewood Cultural Center in Largo stands under a silver buttonwood tree cloned from the national champion in Key West. The champion tree was felled by hurricanes.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
This national champion Drake elm, more than 50 feet tall and still growing, sprawls on private property in Largo.
LARGO - In a back corner of the botanical gardens, behind the banana grove, a dozen infant trees are growing in plastic pots. Their trunks are pale and thin. They're shorter than most men.
They're supposed to help save Florida's forests.
"This one here, this is a Dahoon holly. It's a female. See the beautiful red berries?" John Alleyne stooped to show off the sapling as he spoke. "I'm trying two of these. I already planted another by the pond."
Alleyne is a horticulturist from the University of Florida. He works for Pinellas County's extension service, at the Florida Botanical Gardens at Pinewood Cultural Park.
Today, to celebrate Arbor Day, Alleyne will plant a Bo-tree he coaxed from a cutting. "It was Buddha's favorite tree, the type he prayed under," Alleyne said, stroking the shiny heart-shaped leaves. "It's the latest addition from our living library."
In this secluded section of the gardens, Alleyne is growing the offspring of Florida's national champion trees - 10 species, plus the male and female Dahoon holly. His "living library" is the largest collection of champion tree saplings in the United States.
He is cloning the country's biggest trees.
Florida has more champion trees than any other state - 175 of the tallest, thickest, oldest trees in the nation. "We have more climate zones," Alleyne explained. "So we have more species."
A bald cypress called The Senator stands 118 feet tall outside Orlando. Its branches start eight stories up. It has been growing since before Christ was born.
A live oak in Gainesville has a crown spread so wide it could shade nearly a half a football field.
Two trophy trees tower over Pasco County: a Carolina holly and a camphor-tree. The Dahoon holly that Alleyne is reproducing grows in Innisbrook.
"And you should see the Drake elm we found right here in Largo," he said. "I have to show you that magnificent tree."
But before that, he has to tell you about the list, and the loss, and the tree trimmer who took his kids to work.
If a tree falls . . .
It's impossible to keep track of every tree in the country. But since 1941, the American Forestry Association has tried.
Every two years, the nonprofit publishes its list of champions - the best of each species, determined by a point system using measurements of height, girth and crown spread.
Anyone can nominate a big tree. Trees can be growing on public or private land. Forestry officials visit and verify each new winner.
"Our lists are constantly changing," said Rachel Brittin, the forestry association spokeswoman.
People are always finding new big trees.
And many of the old ones are disappearing.
Florida's list was last updated in 1997. Daniel B. Ward and Robert T. Ing spent six years tracking the state's 853 largest trees. Their study, Big Trees: The Florida Register, includes stats on national and state champions, honorable mentions and winners emeritus.
It also has epitaphs for some of the 181 toppled mammoths:
* 19 champion trees were blown down by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
* 18 were destroyed by human action, either intentional or accidental.
* The national champion gumbo-limbo on Captiva Island was cut down to make room for time shares.
* Logging in Taylor County removed the Carolina basswood, wild plum and Florida maple.
* A Chinese elm at the University of Florida was "removed during construction of a parking garage."
Just like Joni Mitchell (and the Counting Crows) sang.
Several giants around Tampa Bay also have died or been killed since that study. The national champion bluejack oak north of Largo died after someone built a home on a nearby lot, invading the roots, said Terry Mock, who directs the Champion Tree Project. He's not sure what killed the two sand pines in Starkey Wilderness Park.
"People worry about deforestation in the Amazon. Well, worry about Florida. We've lost 99.8 percent of our old growth trees," said Mock, who lives in Lake Worth. More than 8,000 species of trees worldwide are in danger of extinction, he said.
Florida is losing an average of four national champion trees every year, said Largo tree trimmer Loren Westenberger, who serves on the Champion Tree Project board.
"Pinellas means "Point of Pines,' " Alleyne said. "This whole county once was forest. Those trees had been growing for hundreds, thousands of years.
"We're trying to make sure we don't lose them all for good."
Can't keep 'em? Clone 'em!
The idea for the Champion Tree Project sprouted in 1996, when a Michigan tree trimmer took his two teenage sons to work.
While David Milarch was driving his boys down highways, he told them about the old days, when America was one big forest. "Experts say a squirrel could have traveled from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River without touching the ground," said a 2001 New York Times article.
But Milarch and his boys didn't see much forest. And the trees they were trimming weren't all that impressive. They searched and searched, but found few big trees.
Many champions on the American Forestry list were gone.
Milarch's 15-year-old son Jared wanted to know why someone didn't try to reproduce the rest.
Scientists tried it with peanuts. They've been engineering citrus for almost a century. Apples, azaleas, roses and rhubarb.
But no one had ever tried to clone a big tree.
"It's absolutely amazing that this has been right under everyone's noses and no one has ever attempted it before," Mock said. "It's economics, mostly. There just wasn't the commercial demand for most of these species."
In the eight years since Milarch founded the organization, the Champion Tree Project has gone international. Mock hopes to help clone Robin Hood's famous oak from Sherwood Forest. And he already has talked to officials about getting access to a tree that has been growing inside a Chinese temple since the Ming Dynasty.
Experts aren't sure whether the project will work.
"But we have to try," Alleyne said. "We're running out of time."
Tree sex 101
The American Forestry Association has a tree nursery in Jacksonville, where grandchildren of trees from Graceland, Mount Vernon, and a few national champions are growing. "Those trees come from seeds that fall on the ground," said Brittin, the group's spokeswoman. "We don't do anything invasive to those trees."
Cloned trees, however, require taking an actual cutting from the tree.
"It can be dangerous for some of those giants," Brittin said. "And there's no real way to prove those cloned trees will grow as big as their predecessors."
Alleyne and Mock said they're not harming the trees. They're helping.
They're trying to prove that the biggest trees have genetic properties that could make their direct reproductions live longer and withstand greater environmental pressures.
"Nobody knows why these champion trees survived," Alleyne said. "We want to find out.
"We're trying to build a better tree."
Here's their theory: Tree seeds only have one sex. They have to be fertilized by birds. (A male holly has to be planted within 50 feet of the female for the berries to bloom.) So when someone plants a seed, only half of that plant's genetic properties are reproduced in the seedling.
"We take a cutting and root it, or do a direct tissue cut," Alleyne said. "This way, you get a 100 percent reproduction: a perfect clone."
So if a Southern magnolia survived because it was somehow genetically stronger, thicker, better able to withstand disease and storms, wouldn't you want a copy of that tree to plant in your yard? he asked. As long as people are planting, they might as well plant a tree that has the best chance.
"In the wild, a tree should live 50 to 100 years at least," Alleyne said.
"In the city, most trees don't even last a decade."
Nursery to nature
Tree project people get permission to trim every national champion. They get funding from the National Tree Trust and other grants. They've already reproduced one national champion and replanted it on the soil where its parent plant blew down.
In 1997, Milarch collected samples from the national champion silver buttonwood in Key West. The next year, Hurricane Georges almost destroyed that tree. Hurricane Irene finished it off in 1999.
But Milarch was able to root some of the samples - and replace the original with an exact replica.
Alleyne also got a clone of the country's best silver buttonwood. It's "growing like blazes" near the fountain in the Largo gardens. "This one is showing the greatest potential," Alleyne said, looking up into his 20-foot prodigy. When the temperature drops below 34 degrees, Alleyne shoots a parachute across the canopy, to keep his future champion warm.
"We don't do propagation work here," he said. "We just take care of the young trees."
Tree project workers give the cuttings to a dozen nurseries across the state, including Cherry Lake Tree Farm in Brooksville. When the clones are hearty enough to be potted, nursery workers give some to the gardens.
Alleyne grows them from sapling size until they're big enough to be planted in the ground.
The nurseries get to keep the other clones to sell to the public. By next Christmas, Alleyne said, those Dahoon hollies should be bursting with berries - and ready to offer as the first champion species available for sale.
"It takes five years, at least, and $125,000 to introduce these new trees in commercial quantities," Mock said.
A holly tree will cost around $250, Alleyne said; $500 if you want a professional arborist to plant it at your home, fertilize and prune it.
"Eventually, we want to clone all 175 of Florida's national champions," Alleyne said. "We're also going to go after state champs.
"Because we believe in Providence."
He's a living example.
The trouble with champions
After Alleyne showed off his prized saplings, after he pointed out the Southern magnolia clone growing near the gazebo, the gumbo-limbo thriving down by the creek, after he explained about the list and the loss, the tree trimmer's son and tree sex, he talked a little bit about himself - and why he cares so much about cloning these giants.
"I grew up in Trinidad. My family lived at a propagating station. My father was a propagator, who worked for the British government.
"The British were great botanists. They moved plants around a lot. And my father was supervisor of the station. But he had a heart attack. He died when I was 15. The people made us move out of that house."
A couple of years later, Alleyne won a national scholarship to study abroad. He went to Washington State University where he studied plant propagation. Then he went to work for the United Nations, helping strengthen native food systems in Pakistan and India.
He moved to Florida because the climate is close to his homeland's. During his first month at the botanical gardens, someone drove him to see the Drake elm.
"It's close now, a few more blocks," Alleyne said, showing a visitor the way to Largo's national champion. "I've never seen anything like it. This must be a good spot for soil - or something."
Westenberger, the tree trimmer, nominated the elm for the list. It towers more than 50 feet over a single-story home, spreads across a parking lot for apartments next door. It has taken out two tile roofs, a screened-porch around the backyard pool, six strands of power lines at a snap. When the electric company wanted to take down the tree, Alleyne wrote a letter explaining the importance of what they saw only as a nuisance.
"It's still growing," he told the homeowner, when she let him through a fence to see the elm. "There's no way to know how big it might get."
The homeowner didn't want to give her address, for fear people would start pilgrimages to see her elm. She didn't want to give her name because someone might look up her address.
She said she hates that tree.
It takes over everything. It has caused thousands of dollars in damage. And it has 10-billion little leaves that are sharp as a fingernail.
Alleyne patted the elm's mottled bark, looked up through the sprawling arms. "I'm going to clone that one next," he told the homeowner.