Image: Rob Lovato Victor Aquino
The clones come from trees that were larger than any living tree today. A new “big grove” of endangered coastal redwoods has emerged in California, thanks to a non-profit association that planted 75 saplings in a San Francisco park.
Since it is an endangered species, any new community of coastal redwoods would be good news. However, these 75 seedlings also have journalistic value for another reason: They are all clones, born from DNA that conservationists recovered from stumps (section of trunk that remains in the ground attached to the root when the cut is made close to its base) of ancient redwoods. Now growing up together in the Presidio of San Francisco, they carry a valuable genetic legacy that stretches back thousands of years.
General Sherman. Image: Haveseen Shutterstock
The trees were planted on December 14 by the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive (AATA), a non-profit association that creates “living genetic libraries of old-growth trees.” Each sapling was obtained from one of the five ancient stumps in Northern California, remnants of redwoods that were all larger than the largest tree in existence today, a giant sequoia known as General Sherman. After discovering that the stumps were still alive, AATA co-founder David Milarch and his team led an expedition to clone them.
In the photo above, for example, is the 11-meter-wide Fieldbrook stump, left behind by a coastal redwood that was about 122 meters high and more than 3,000 years old when it was felled in 1890. And in the photo below is one of the 20 saplings cloned from it.
Image: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive
Because they are clones of trees that were larger than currently living redwoods, the AATA is calling these young trees “champion trees.” There is no guarantee that they will live up to that title, but their genes and protected location at least give them a chance. And they can also become champions in a broader sense, both for their own species and for many others, including us.
A mature coastal redwood can remove enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, notes the AATA, sequestering up to 250 tons of greenhouse gases per tree. They also perform other important ecosystem services, such as filtering water and soil, and are highly resistant to wildfires, droughts, and pests.
“We are excited to set the standard for environmental recovery,” Milarch says in a statement. “These trees have the ability to fight climate change and revitalize forests in a way that we have not seen before.”
Once the starting material is collected from a redwood stump, it takes about 2.5 years to grow the young trees that are large enough to plant. The idea of cloning trees may sound “complicated and unnatural,” acknowledges the AATA on its website, but this process is actually mimicking a natural type of propagation of asexual redwoods.
Sequoia National Park. Image: Hovikphotography Shutterstock
In addition to the Fieldbrook stump, which produced 20 seedlings, the AATA created clones of four other redwood stumps with diameters of at least 30 feet: the Barrett stump (25 seedlings), the Barrett No. 2 stump (14 seedlings), the Big John (11 seedlings) and Ayers stump (five seedlings).
“These saplings have extraordinary potential to purify our air, water and soil for generations to come,” says Milarch. “We hope that this ‘super grove’, which has the ability to become an eternal forest, will grow undisturbed by natural or man-made disasters and spread forever.”