COLLEGE PARK – A piece of American history is being kept alive in about 30 baby-food jars lining the bottom shelf of a fluorescent-lighted, pristine white storage tank in the back of a lab at the University of Maryland.
Inside the jars grow tiny, bright-green buds, the remnants of the Liberty Tree under which revolutionaries gathered more than two centuries ago to plot America’s path toward freedom.
A Maryland scientist hopes to eventually coax full-size clones of the 96- foot-tall tree that stood on the grounds of St. John’s College in Annapolis from what are now buds no bigger than the tip of a shoelace.
“Given the historical importance it was something that would be a fun thing to do,” said Gary Coleman, an assistant professor of horticulture and landscape architecture, who gathered about 75 buds from the tree this summer, before age and storms forced officials to cut it down.
“It’s a worthy cause to try to preserve some of the historical treasures like this,” he said.
The Annapolis tulip poplar was the last of 13 Liberty Trees — one in each of the colonies — under which colonists gathered to plan their revolution against the British. In 1765, the Sons of Liberty met under the tree to hear Samuel Chase and other patriots spout revolutionary ideas, and Annapolitans later met there to decide if they would run people who had not joined the patriots out of town.
St. John’s College has held graduations under the tree since 1929 and alumni have held weddings there.
State forestry officials estimated the Liberty Tree was about 400 years old — almost twice the life expectancy of a typical tulip poplar. Documenting the age of the tree was difficult because the hollow trunk was filled with cement in 1907.
Age finally caught up with the tree this year and the remnants of Hurricane Floyd delivered the final blow Sept. 16, knocking off a large limb and putting the tree in danger of toppling. College officials cut it down Oct. 27, after arborists determined it could not be saved.
Efforts to preserve the tree had already started. But attempts to root cuttings from the aged tree failed, leading to Coleman’s cloning project.
“This is a difficult species,” he said. “It’s not impossible, but it is not easy.”
The tedious cloning process began at a June ceremony when Coleman collected 5-mm buds from the tree. The 75 tree shoots were then cleaned and the tissue planted in a clear jelly-textured matter, rich in plant hormones and nutrients.
“The idea is to take the very tip of the plant and have that essentially grow” into a full tree, Coleman said, adding that things are looking good so far.
The trees-to-be now live alongside glass jars and clear plastic boxes of raspberry, strawberry and currant plants, 3-inch high poplar trees, among other botanical babies. The room is lined with silver shelves and fluorescent lights and the temperature is kept stable at 22 degrees Celsius, or 71.6 F. The air is filtered to keep spores, bacteria and dust from contaminating the plants.
The bright green buds growing in the baby-food jars in Coleman’s lab do not look like trees yet — they look like tiny leaves. The next step is increasing the number of shoots. Once that is accomplished, he’ll be about halfway through the process, he said.
“It’s going really slowly,” he said. But, “I didn’t even expect we’d get this far.”
Once they multiply and grow, Coleman will try to induce roots, which, he said, “is not a trivial task.” If solid sets of roots develop, the trees will be transplanted in a greenhouse on the College Park campus, where they should grow quickly.
When the plants mature into seedlings and are ready to be planted outside, the state plans to give one to each of the original colonies as part of its millennium celebration. Long-range plans call for each state to eventually get a tree, but Coleman questions whether they will be able to survive far out of their native range in the East.
States are not the only ones clamoring for Liberty Tree clones: Coleman has received requests for seedlings from couples who were engaged under the tree, St. John’s students who graduated beneath its branches, history buffs and tourists, among others.
Coleman said he hopes to see some concrete results within the next six months to a year, but he’s “shooting to have some material available this spring.”
“It’s been an interesting few months,” he said. “That’s one of the things science is supposed to do — it’s not just about learning new things and sitting in your lab discovering things, part of it is applying the tools of science to society.”