A lost experiment
Sixteen years ago, a plant nursery owner, a science teacher and a team of forestry researchers launched an experiment to clone one of the oldest trees in the world. What they didn’t know then — aside from whether the project would work at all — was that the genetic donor tree, a 3,500-year-old bald cypress, would soon burn to the ground.
The Senator, a tree that served for thousands of years as a towering guidepost for Native Americans and explorers, was consumed by fire on Jan. 16, 2012. The following morning, in a clearing at the far end of a boardwalk cutting through Longwood’s Big Tree Park’s dense, marshy grove, all that still stood of its 125-foot trunk was a blackened stump of jagged wood pointed toward the sky.
Forestry workers didn’t know then that 185 miles north, hidden behind a stand of live oak trees, a piece of The Senator was still alive. An unusual journey was about to begin.
One year and a few weeks after its death, visitors celebrated the rebirth of the world’s fifth-oldest tree on March 2. The new tree, called The Phoenix, already towered more than 50 feet above the ground on the day that it was transplanted just a few feet away from its predecessor.
“What you see around you has been quite the undertaking,” Joe Abel, the director of leisure services in Seminole County, said to the visitors as they stared at The Phoenix for the first time. “We wanted to give a rebirth to The Senator in a new way.”
Don Rockwood, a University of Florida forest genetics researcher who was involved in the project, stood in front of the park’s massive new resident and told the story of how The Phoenix’s progenitor had lived so improbably long, and how a team saved it before they knew its fate.
“At that time, I think none of us thought preserving The Senator would be as important as it is today,” Rockwood said. Up to the late 1990s, aside from fencing it in, nobody had tried to preserve the tree before, he said. After all, it had done an admirable job of preserving itself.
For more than three millennia, The Senator — named after Florida Sen. Moses Overstreet, who donated the land on which the tree stood in 1927 — showed a remarkable will to live. It survived countless storms before a hurricane ripped off the top 47 feet of the 165-foot-tall tree in 1925. Even after being violently truncated to 118 feet, it grew another seven feet tall in the next few decades.
Fast forward to 1997, up a lonely two-lane stretch of Northwest County Road 53 where barbed wire fences stitch Lafayette County into a patchwork of farm plots like a quilt viewed from above. Marvin Buchanan, a North Florida nursery owner, was creating a cypress tree grove. He just needed the tree cuttings to grow them from — hundreds of them.
“No one really cared where the cuttings came from,” Buchanan said of the project he was working on with the University of Florida. “We wanted to get as many clones and copies as we could get all over the United States to go into the orchard.”
By a stroke of luck, a group of cypress tree enthusiasts were looking to preserve some of the oldest and tallest species in the country at the same time. One of them, Layman Hardy, a science teacher from Miami, happened to be in Big Tree Park just after a branch from The Senator broke off and hurtled to the ground in a storm. That branch had tiny buds on it, the keys to cloning a tree.
He brought it to Buchanan’s farm, where clippings from the branch were grafted into roots of other cypress trees. The tiny trees that sprang up were transplanted to sink roots of their own.
“[The Senator’s cloning material] was just a good source from a really big tree,” Buchanan said. “We planted some, and as it turns out, the children do have some very good characteristics.”
From that point, 10 trees, all clones of The Senator, started their trip skyward.
The odds were one in 10 that the project would be a success, Rockwood said. “If any of those steps had failed, we would not be where we are today.”
From the start, the little trees seemed to beat those odds. But soon the odds made a comeback. By 2002, three of the trees were dead.
“We can’t really put a handle on why three of them died,” Buchanan said. “It’s just like any creature in the universe, some of them just die. When you take a cutting and try to graft it, that’s about what you get. When you graft a bud onto a cypress, it’s very, very hard to do. Only about 10 percent survive.”
After the three deaths, Buchanan’s trees seemed to be out of the woods. After the first few years, barring diseases, the rest were likely to keep growing. The seven that survived continued to flourish, growing at an incredible rate.
Over the next few years many of the researchers involved with the project from the start moved on, as the tree that would become The Phoenix grew more than three feet per year, thriving as the project faded from view.
In an instant the tree’s fate changed with the flicker of a flame.
On a cold January night in 2012, investigators said Sara Barnes, a part-time model with a stargazing hobby and a history of methamphetamine arrests, snuck into Big Tree Park, climbed into the hollow base of The Senator, and lit a fire. Within moments it was out of control. By the time the call came in to Seminole County firefighters, the massive tree was a column of flame, burning from the inside out. The fire raged for hours; still burning, the top 100 feet of the tree collapsed.
At the time of The Senator’s demise, the cloning project of hundreds of random trees in Buchanan’s grove in North Florida had been all but forgotten. But Scott Sager, a forestry specialist who used to teach at the University of Florida, had a long memory, Rockwood said.
“He just happened to remember this project … and yes indeed we had seven candidates that could replace the senator,” Rockwood said.
One day in August, Buchanan’s phone rang with a special order. Soon it was official: The Senator, or at least an identical clone of it, would grow again in Big Tree Park.
Buchanan’s crew started digging. It takes six months to prepare a tree the size of The Senator’s replacement for transplant. The roots fan out dozens of feet, so surgically removing most of them, then coaxing the tree to grow its roots in a tight ball without killing it, takes months. During transport, a crane and a tractor-trailer bear the massive weight.
In Seminole County, officials involved with the project put forward tens of thousands of dollars for park renovation, fencing, security systems and an arts grant to use parts of The Senator’s enormous trunk to create a memorial. They prepared a site for the new tree, hollowing out the marshy soil less than a football field away from The Senator.
The new cypress tree needed a name. Back in 2005, county officials had held a contest among local schools to name an 89-foot-tall, 2,000-year-old tree just a few feet away from The Senator. Students from Geneva Elementary named it Lady Liberty, and the name stuck. When they announced another contest to choose a name for The Senator’s replacement, fourth-grader May Frangoul made Geneva Elementary famous again when she came up with the name The Phoenix. Again, the name stuck.
“Since the Phoenix is a mythical bird that rises out of the ashes, I thought it would be good for the tree since it got burned down and now there’s a new one that got planted,” May said.
On March 2, May was there to welcome the tree home, but Buchanan wasn’t. Up at his nursery along that lonely stretch of two-lane, he still had hundreds of trees to take care of. Briefly in the spotlight, the project that resurrected one of the world’s oldest trees is slowly fading into obscurity again. Buchanan said that’s how he prefers it anyway.
“It’s a feel-good situation, but I didn’t do it for that purpose,” Buchanan said with an easy frankness. “It was just pure old luck of the draw, or providence. God has a hand in everything. I assume he had a hand in this as well.”
After the dedication ceremony for the new tree ended, visitors slowly trickled down the boardwalk toward the clearing in the forest. Few had seen the ancient giant since the fire. Gripping the wooden railing, some struggled to hold back tears as they stared.
Frozen in time, the charred base of The Senator rests, still pointed toward the heavens. Just a few feet away, tiny buds are already growing on The Phoenix’s spindly brown branches, reaching for the sky.