Long-lasting trees make memorable gifts

June 04, 2005|by JEFF RUGG/Copley News Service

Starting with Memorial Day and continuing into June, we are in a period of graduations, reunions and weddings. It is a time to remember, and one way people remember others is to give gifts.

Trees can make very long-lasting gifts. Trees that have a history known to the giver and recipient are even more memorable.

For instance, in 1829, President Andrew Jackson planted a Southern magnolia in the south lawn of the White House in remembrance of his wife who had died a month before his inauguration. The tree came from a cutting off of a tree at The Hermitage, their home plantation in Tennessee. In 1988, President Reagan gave his retiring chief of staff, former Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker a cutting from the Jackson magnolia. In May of 1995, Baker planted a cutting from his tree at the Hermitage Plantation, which is now a museum.

If you have an old $20 bill, look to the left of the White House portico and you will see the large Southern magnolia tree. The Jackson magnolia is still growing at the White House, in spite of being hit by an airplane. It's also growing at Baker's residence and at the plantation.


Many plants have the ability to grow new roots, stems and leaves starting from only one of those parts. If you start with a piece of a branch, known as a cutting, and take care of it so that it grows its own roots, you will have separate, yet genetically identical trees.

The American Forests Famous and Historic Tree Program offers historic trees to the public. They have apple trees grown from the last remaining tree planted by Johnny Appleseed. They have trees from the gardens of Mount Vernon, the battlefield at Gettysburg where Lincoln gave his speech, and Sycamore trees from Ellis Island. There are cloned trees or seeds from the trees at Elvis Presley's estate, the Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and the oldest tree east of the Mississippi. American Forest is working with the Dale Earnhardt Foundation to plant trees in all 19 states where he raced.

To order a historic tree or to join with them in one of their tree planting projects, check out

Another tree program is Operation Liberty Forest, conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Forests. Its goal is to plant one tree to honor each of the 1,384,000 members of the United States armed forces. Liberty Trees may also be planted to honor any veteran.

Of course, anyone can have a tree reproduced and given away as a gift. Many trees and shrubs have been grown this way for centuries. It is not hard, you just have to be a little patient.

One way cuttings can reproduce is through a process called layering. To do this, you bend a low limb to the ground and cover a foot or so of the stem a few inches deep with soil. First, take off any leaves along the section to be buried. The limb may need to be held in place with a rock or a bent piece of wire. The last foot or so of the limb should be still above the soil line. After a few months, you can dig up the buried section. If it has roots, cut off the limb from the main plant. You just cloned a plant.

Most of our landscape trees and shrubs can be reproduced with softwood cuttings.

Look at any tree branch and you will notice that the end of the branch that has leaves growing directly on it will be a different color than the section of branch growing closer to the tree trunk. The year-old section will have small side branches growing with leaves and be the same color as this year's growth. The next section of the branch closer to the trunk will again be a different color and have more woody bark.

The older sections of bark have more wood and are known as hardwood cuttings. The softwood cuttings still have the ability to grow roots. In many trees and shrubs, hardwood has lost this ability.

Softwood cuttings taken before summer do not have enough woody cellulose tissue to remain upright when they lose water after they are removed from the tree.

Cut the cuttings from about 6 inches to 1 foot long. When pruning the plant, leave a bud at the end of the branch so the branch can continue to grow. On many cuttings, the section of stem between buds will not grow, so it should be cut off. The bottom one-third to one-half of the stem should have the leaves removed. The stem is then stuck into sand, perlite, vermiculite or peat. The cuttings are kept in a shady location with lots of humidity and moisture for several months.

A greenhouse with automatic misters is what the professionals use. We can improvise with a milk jug cut in half. The bottom is filled with sand and after the cuttings are in, the top is set back on. It can be held in place with a dowel running out the top and a clothes pin holding it on. The pros also use rooting hormones that are often available in garden centers or in catalogs. The hormones do increase the percentage of cuttings that will root and they increase the amount of roots the cuttings get.

The more cuttings you take, the better your chance that some will root. The longer you wait (as long as they are not dead) the more likely that some will root. Some trees will have lots of roots in only a month and others will need all summer and fall to get enough roots to survive on their own.

E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg at

Copley News Service

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