Arborists are bringing the “dinosaur of trees” back to life

Bringing the dead back to life.
Bringing the dead back to life.
Image: Archangel Ancient Tree Archive
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Imagine scientists reviving giant creatures that once roamed the Earth. Well, that’s what arborists are doing today, only they’re cloning saplings from the stumps of the world’s largest, strongest, and longest-lived trees—felled for timber more than a century ago—to create redwood “super groves” that can help fight climate change.

“Most redwoods don’t live to be 1,000 years old, and only two to three percent live to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old,” says David Milarch, founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a US nonprofit that propagates the world’s largest trees. “We’re looking for the biggest, oldest trees with the strongest immune systems who can survive in current climate conditions. We know something is special about them.”

Using saplings made from the basal sprouts of these super trees to plant new groves in temperate countries around the world means the growths have a better chance than most to become giants themselves. Their ancestors grew up to 400 ft (122 m) tall and to 35 ft in diameter, after all, larger than the largest living redwood today, a giant sequoia in California’s Sequoia National Park.

Already, super saplings from the project are thriving in groves in Canada, England, Wales, France, New Zealand, and Australia. None of these locales are places where coastal redwoods grow naturally, but they all have cool temperatures and sufficient fog for the redwoods, which drink moisture from the air in summer rather than relying on rain. Milarch calls this “assisted migration.”

Last month, his organization planted another such grove in the Presidio in San Francisco, California. The park lies along the US west’s redwood corridor, which runs from Oregon to California, home to the stumps the saplings were cloned from. But 95% of giant growths there were cut long ago. Many of the redwoods along the corridor now are young trees. Milarch notes that as the local climate is getting hotter and less foggy, it’s no longer as conducive to producing the mega growths of yore.

Now, 75 saplings created from the basal sprouts of the most rugged and massive ancient tree stumps of the coastal region will grow in the Presidio. They may eventually become the hardiest and tallest trees around, if their ancestors are any indication.

A cloning project like this was previously thought impossible. Redwoods are naturally self-cloning, sending out a circle of identical growths, called “a fairy ring,” 20 ft around the host tree decades prior to natural death. But trees that die before their time don’t necessarily create fairy rings. So Milarch and his colleagues found another way to revive the 3,000-year-old growths about five years ago. ”It’s as if the dinosaurs were being brought back to life,” he says.

The arborists noticed that massive redwood coastal growth tree stumps, once thought to be dead, were surrounded by basal sprouts, live material growing in shoots right around the base. Using these shoots from the ancient growths, the arborists propagated saplings for about two years before they were ready for planting. Success was not certain at first, but the cloning process yielded results. “Lo and behold,” Milarch says, “it works!”

The cloning and propagation process.
The cloning and propagation process.
Image: The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.

That’s not just good news for fans of giant redwoods. It’s also positive for the environment. These trees are champions when it comes to eco-technology; they filter air, soil, and water and are capable of removing record amounts of carbon dioxide emissions—the leading cause of accelerating climate change—from the atmosphere.

When trees breathe, they take in carbon dioxide, release oxygen, and store carbon in their trunks, and because they live longer and grow bigger than other plant species, they store and “lock” this carbon more effectively than other plant species. A mature redwood can sequester up to 250 tons or more of carbon dioxide during the photosynthesis process. Redwoods capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than any other kind of tree on Earth. And giant redwoods with strong immune systems will be even more effective, Milarch predicts.

“We’re excited to set the standard for environmental recovery,” he says in a statement about the Presidio planting. “These trees have the capacity to fight climate change and revitalize forests and our ecology in a way we haven’t seen before.”