Historic trees get a second shot at life with cloning efforts

The fourth-largest Red Oak Tree in New Jersey is located, for now, in Teaneck, N.J. (Carmine Galasso/ The Record / June 29, 2013)

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The majestic oak that sits on the corner of Cedar Lane and Palisade Avenue in Teaneck, N.J., is headed for the chopping block, but the historic tree may live on, if experts can manage the tricky feat of cloning it.

The practice of cloning plants and trees - producing genetically identical copies - is nothing new. From impatiens at the local nursery to cherry blossoms in Washington, plants and trees have been cloned to replicate desirable traits.

"It's been done for thousands and thousands of years," said David L. Kidwell-Slak, a horticulturist in the floral and nursery plants research unit at the U.S. National Arboretum. "It's really the primary way people have domesticated any plant."

But matching the 250-plus-year-old red oak might be more challenging, according to tree experts. That's because oaks are among the most difficult plants to clone. Callery pear, American holly, Atlantic white cedar, yellowwood and birches are easier to clone through cuttings, said Mike D'Errico, the executive director of the state's Society of Certified Tree Experts.

Typically, about 6 inches of the branch tip, called soft wood growth, is cut, dipped into a rooting hormone to stimulate root growth, then put into a moist, warm environment.

Depending on the plant, the stem cuttings will form roots and be ready for replanting within weeks or months, said David Slaymaker, a professor of molecular plant biology at William Paterson University.

"The new plant is genetically identical to the plant the cutting came from, since it was actually part of that plant," Slaymaker said.

The cuttings also can be grafted onto another plant. The results will be genetically similar, although the roots will belong to another tree.

A second, slightly more expensive and modern method of plant cloning is through tissue culture. In this process, young tissue is cultured in a sterile environment and treated with plant hormone to stimulate root growth.

If the Teaneck oak is saved through cloning, it would not be the first time that a tree of historical and emotional significance has been propagated for future generations.

Some of the cherry blossom trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington are clones of the original gifts from Japan in 1912. The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has been cloning and archiving the genetic material of the world's oldest species, studying their genetic makeup to discover the secret to their endurance, and replanting some of them.


In 2009 the township of West Caldwell, N.J., took 122 cuttings from what was then the state's largest cucumber magnolia to make genetic copies.

The tree's image had become the town's symbol, engraved onto its official stationary and police cars, said Clay Allison of the Beaver Brook Nursery in Wantage, N.J., who handled the process.

Of the 122 cuttings, only about 25 to 30 of the offspring were successful, Allison said.


Bergen County is planning to cut down the northern red oak following a report that concluded that extensive decay, termite damage, the aftereffects of a lightning strike five years ago and the loss of 40 percent of its root system all weakened the tree, increasing the likelihood that it or its limbs will fall and hurt - or kill - someone.

The tree has special significance in some corners of the township. Over the years, many have fought to save it from developers. An ordinance this year gave it official historic status.

The ordinance explained, "The tree was standing before the birth of our nation and before George Washington's retreat over the Hackensack River at Historic New Bridge Landing."

The Puffin Foundation, which made a donation to Bergen County to take care of the tree in perpetuity, is working with tree experts to keep the oak's lineage alive.