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Clones of History

Experts are making sure that George Washington's trees will always be around.

To visit Mount Vernon is to walk in George Washington's footsteps. Our first president was at heart a spirited farmer and innovative landscaper. He designed the sweeping lawn and tree-lined walkways that still delight visitors today. Look closely at the trees and you'll discover some that were planted by Washington himself more than two centuries ago.

And those trees — 13 of them, to be exact — are at the heart of a unique preservation project directed by horticulture director Dean Norton. David Milarch and his family — residents of Michigan — have developed what they call "historic botany." Using buds from Washington's trees, they're producing exact genetic duplicates — clones. It's an extraordinary undertaking that Milarch is doing for no charge, a gift from his family to the nation.

The cloning process was first used 3,000 years ago by Plato, but never before has it saved such sacred trees. Branches with new growth are gathered from each of the 13 trees and then trimmed.

"We're going to remove the leaves to gather the tissue," says Milarch, "and if you look very closely at where each branch [arises], there is a bud, and that's the future of the next George Washington tree."

The buds are sent to nurseries where T-shaped cuts are made in the bark of host trees. The cuts form pockets that hold the buds. Once in place, they're wrapped and specially nurtured to trigger a growth spurt even Washington would find amazing. The bud will be a 5- to 8-foot tree in a little more than five months.

The very first clone has already been given a place of honor. Just 6 feet tall and barely a tree, it stands in the shadow of the nation's capital.

The original 13 are being closely monitored, a labor of love for Norton. As long as they continue to thrive, the clones will be kept in nurseries, waiting to be called to duty for yet another 200 years.

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