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Burned to a Stump, a Tree Older Than Jesus is Replaced by its Clone

A 3,500-year-old tree burned to the ground by a Florida woman, only to be rescued by a cloning experiment long forgotten.

Last winter, 26-year-old Sarah Barnes crawled into the hallowed base of the "Senator," a Florida Bald Cypress tree, historic landmark, and beloved icon.

Barnes and a friend of hers fit themselves within the cavity, but needed a light to guide them through the dark. She later admitted to Florida state agents that they were both there to smoke meth. Barnes and her friend soon found themselves watching and filming as the 3,500 year-old-tree burned wildly.

Standing at 118 feet-tall and 35 feet-wide, the "Senator" was regarded as the largest tree of its kind and the eighth oldest in the world. "I can't believe I burned down a tee older than Jesus," Barnes had said.

What lost in the accident found a second chance in a forgotten experiment. Nearly 15 years ago, a piece of the Senator had broken off during a storm and was found by Layman Hardy, a Miami science teacher and cypress tree preservationist, according to Babcock.

He took the limb to Marvin Buchanan, a tree nursery owner in North Florida, who attempted to clone the Senator by grafting clippings of the limb onto roots of existing cypress trees. Out of 10 cloned trees, a handful had taken their own roots, but soon the experiment was pushed to the wayside.

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.


The replacement tree, a genetic relative of the Senator named "The Phoenix"—a fitting name for a tree reduced to black ash before rising anew—was welcomed into a lot adjacent to the Senator on March 2.

Read more at The Observer


Photo by Isaac Babcock for The Observer

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