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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Champion Trees

Air Date: Week of

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Champion trees are the largest, and often the oldest tree of a species. Some believe these trees have genetic superiority. As Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio reports, genetic duplicates of two Champions are now for sale commercially. And there’s plan to propagate every Champion Tree in the United States.


CURWOOD: If you want to plant the world's largest red ash tree in your yard, you can now buy a tree propagated from the original, sold under the name "ChampTree." A champion tree is the largest, and often longest-lived, example of it's kind. The red ash was the first so-called champion tree to be sold commercially. Grafting trees is common in much of horticulture. For example, every apple tree that bears Golden Delicious apples was propagated from the one, single, original Golden Delicious tree. But until now, no one had tried it extensively with the biggest known trees. The non-profit Champion Tree Project hopes to market every champion in the U.S. Peter Payette from Interlochen Public Radio reports.

(walking noises)

MILARCH: Here's the largest red ash clone in the world. This is the largest and the oldest.

PAYETTE: David Milarch is a third-generation shade tree grower in Northern Michigan. He and his son helped propagate this tree's parent, which stands ninety-five feet tall, and has a trunk eight feet in diameter.

MILARCH: Pretty incredible, isn't it? But you'll notice this tree's never been staked, this tree has never been sprayed, it's never had a disease problem. The branching on this tree has-- the pruning has been absolutely minimal, and you'll see a straight central leader, disease resistance, and a tremendous growth rate.

PAYETTE: Those qualities, says Milarch, helped this tree's parent live an estimated five hundred years, and every duplicate will have the same genetic characteristics. The process of naming champion trees began in 1940. Champions are identified by using a formula that gives points for height, the spread of the branches, and the circumference of the trunk. Trees are then listed in a national register by the group American Forests. In 1995, Milarch began collecting buds from Michigan champions and submitting them to J. Frank Schmidt Nursery in Oregon. There, the buds are grafted onto root stocks and grown into young trees. Bud material from these is collected to make more genetic duplicates, and so on until a supply of grafted clones can be established. The red ash is one of two champions now listed in J. Frank Schmidt's wholesale catalog. The project receives royalties from each tree sold.

(Machinery noise)

PAYETTE: The Champion Tree Project started in Copemish, Michigan, at E.L. Milarch and Sons Nursery. At the age of sixteen, David Milarch's son, Jared, found himself looking at rows of dying trees, and wondering why he'd want to go into the family business.

JARED: I asked my father. I said, "Hey, you know, why can't we plant some of these trees that will last as long as some of the champion trees that you've shown us throughout our travels?" And he said, "Well, I guess you could." So, that was really how the project began.

PAYETTE: The Milarchs set out to graft one hundred trees, just in Michigan. But the project rapidly expanded as the father-son team was asked to propagate and plant trees around the country. In Key West, Florida they cloned the champion silver buttonwood. Later, the parent tree was killed in a hurricane, and a duplicate was planted in its place. The projects executive director, Terry Mock says they're transforming the way people think about trees.

MOCK: Trees have never had a national brand name that people could identify with. ChampTree, which is the registered trademark for the Champion Tree Project, will be the first national brand-name line of trees. We will be the Ralph Lauren of trees.

PAYETTE: Which is not to say the project is about making trees fashionable. Mock sees it as a solution to problems with the nation's forests. Today, more trees are being planted in so-called urban forests, and their lifespans are short. On average, a tree planted in a downtown area is expected to live from seven to ten years. What's needed, says Mock, are vigorous trees that can thrive in adverse conditions and put a canopy above our heads.

MOCK: The tree canopy coverage is probably the most important component, and without that canopy coverage, all kinds of bad things happen. Air temperatures rise, air pollution increases, groundwater runoff increases, groundwater pollution increases.

PAYETTE: What better trees to populate the urban forests, says Mock, then grafted clones of champions, since they have the genetic potential to live a long life. But that idea has been less-than-well received by some members of the scientific community. Don Waller teachers botany and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He notes that longevity is the result of many factors.

WALLER: They're looking at a plant that may or may not be genetically special. That is, it may just be the luck of the draw and the place that the plant is growing, not its genes, that account for its large size.

PAYETTE: Waller says the way to find genetically superior plants is to conduct research, where a number of trees are exposed to the same pollutants and other environmental conditions. Then, if a tree shows resilience, it can be attributed to its genes.

WALLER: Going around and just picking big old trees does not separate genetic from environmental circumstances at all.

PAYETTE: That sort of criticism has dogged the project. Up until last fall, the effort had little financial support. The first big infusion of cash came from the National Tree Trust, an organization created by Congress under the American the Beautiful Act of 1990. Executive director George Cates says the Tree Trust is eager to learn if champions have genetic value, but he says, even if they don't, they're still worth preserving.

CATES: They are flat awesome. I mean, there is a sense of reverence when you see something like the national champion red ash, for example, and think a little bit and put it in perspective about the centuries that that tree has seen pass. And it's just an amazing sight to be up beside one of these giants.

(Machinery noise, voices)

PAYETTE: With the help of the National Tree Trust, plantings of champion trees have been scheduled at Arlington National Cemetery and George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Trees will also be planted in Utah at the Winter Olympics in 2002. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Payette in Copemish, Michigan.

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