In 2010, the beloved Henderson Lawn sycamore was laid to rest. It was in poor health after suffering root damage and a fungal infection, and it posed a falling risk to downtown buildings, cars, and pedestrians. The difficult decision was made to remove the tree, but not before Virginia Tech forestry scientists John Seiler and Eric Wiseman worked to clone the tree.
The scientists took cuttings from healthy parts of the tree, stripping them of leaves to prevent them from drying out. Seiler then dipped the end of each one in rooting powder. “The cuttings have undifferentiated cells, like human stem cells, and that powder tells them to turn into root cells,” Seiler said.
The cuttings that rooted would grow in a greenhouse until they could survive in the ground, and a decade ago, on Earth Day in 2013, the sycamore was replanted in its original home. A second clone was planted near Cheatham Hall.
Since then, the sycamore has seen regular maintenance, including repairing damage from a wind storm. “We performed a full crown reduction, pruning the crown into a ‘small sail’ in the wind,” said University Arborist Jamie King. To reduce the likelihood of further injury, the tree will be pruned every three to five years.
In addition, the care plan for the young sycamore includes decompacting and amending the soil around the roots using compressed air, which will increase resilience to pests and disease.
The clone will grow identically to its parent, but with this planned care and attention, King said, “it could grow back even bigger than the original.”