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Planting a memorial tree

May 26, 2010

From University of Illinois Extension Garden packet

URBANA, Ill.—Beginning with Memorial Day and continuing into June and July, we are in a period of the calendar marked with graduations, reunions, and weddings. It is a time to remember, said a University of Illinois Extension unit horticulture educator.

“Planting a tree in someone’s honor can make a very long-lasting gift of remembrance,” said Jeff Rugg. “Trees that have a history known to the giver and recipient are even more special.”

Rugg gave this example of a tree gift that keeps on giving. 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 before his inauguration. The tree came from a cutting of a tree at their home plantation of The Hermitage in Tennessee. In 1988, President Ronald 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-dollar bill, look to the left of the White House portico, and you will see the large southern magnolia tree,” he said. “The Jackson magnolia is still growing at the White House in spite of being hit by an airplane, at Baker’s residence in Tennessee, and at the Hermitage Plantation. The single tree is growing in three locations because of cloning.

“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 two individually separate, yet genetically identical, trees.”

The American Forests’ Famous and Historic Tree Program offers historically significant trees to the public. They have apple trees grown from the last remaining tree planted by Johnny Appleseed. They have around 100 historic trees from the homes of famous Americans and places like the gardens of Mount Vernon, the battlefield at Gettysburg, and sycamore trees from Ellis Island. There are cloned trees or seeds from the trees at Elvis’ estate, the Japanese cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and the oldest tree east of the Mississippi.

American Forests is working with a variety of organizations to plant trees internationally and across the United States. Operation Liberty Forest is a national program conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Forests. The 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. To order a historic tree or to join with them in one of their tree-planting projects, visit www.historictrees.org.

Rugg said that although you can purchase historically significant trees, you could also make your own history with a tree from your own yard or a relative’s property. “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 1-year-old section will have small side branches growing on it with leaves the same color as this year’s growth. The next section of branch closer to the trunk will again be a different color and have more woody bark,” he said.

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,” he said. “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. You can improvise with a cut-in-half milk jug. 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 to hold it on. The pros also use rooting hormones that are often available in garden centers or in catalogs. The hormones 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,” he said. “The longer you wait, 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.”

From the May 26-June 1, 2010 issue

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