Sex and the Single Tree

By Moll, Gary | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Sex and the Single Tree


Moll, Gary, American Forests


A few miles south of Washington, DC, along the banks of the Potomac River, lies Mount Vernon, the home of this nation's first President. We all know about the role George Washington played in the birth of this country. He and Martha had no children, but at least one heir still resides at the Mount Vernon estate. How can this be, you ask?

Overlooking the carriageway leading to the Washington mansion grows a very old and famous landmark, a tree. Planted by Washington in 1775, just as this nation was about to be born, it stands as a living legacy to the man who planted it and to 213 years of freedom. The arboreal giant, a tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) towers more than 100 feet.

Like the father of our country, the tree has famous roots but no off spring to speak of. During AFA's 1986 search for famous and historic trees, it ranked as one of our most significant trees and was considered a living artifact by some.

Our interest in these special trees blossomed after the late Henry Clepper, AFA's much-missed historian and coauthor of the book Famous and Historic Trees, prompted us to take action on behalf of the trees. Henry hoped that at least some of these historic trees could be perpetuated before they disappeared.

The search for productive seed on the Washington tree proved fruitless. Dean Norton, Mount Vernon horticulturist, says the tree has not produced any seedlings that he can remember. We wondered if the tree was just too old to muster up healthy seed.

We turned to the National Arboretum and tree geneticist, Dr. Frank Santamour, who is well known for his work in breeding trees for the urban landscape. He confirmed some of our fears but also offered hope. Washington's tree could not be expected to produce anywhere near the healthy seed that a younger tree would. It looked like we were going to have to learn a lot about the sex life of tulip trees in a hurry if we wanted to assist the tree in this historic task. Tulip trees are pollinated by insects that must travel between two trees to make a healthy cross. Since the Washington tree is so big and so isolated from other trees of its kind, it is not surprising that the tree has been unsuccessful in producing viable seed. An expert in pollination techniques and some specialized equipment were needed. …

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