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Letting state tree live on

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PRESTON - They stand not particularly tall in the last row, past the burgundy leaves of the pin oak, the bright green sawtooth oaks, the stark and spindly Indigobush. Here, in the corner of what can best be described as a miniature forest, are the most precious seedlings of all: the descendants of the state's best-known tree, the once-mighty Wye Oak.

As local tree lovers know, the Wye Oak - believed to be 460 years old, the oldest in Maryland - was toppled in a storm two Junes ago. But interest in the tree didn't die with it.

Pins have been made from its crumpled leaves. The governor just had a desk built from its upper branches delivered to the State House. And for decades - long before the oak met its end - people have bought seedlings descended from the tree, most famous for its longevity.

The 1,000 Wye Oak seedlings, actually the genetic grandchildren of the great oak, were born and raised at the John S. Ayton State Forest Tree Nursery, 300 Eastern Shore acres that belong to the Department of Natural Resources. Yet they are just a tiny fraction of the trees cultivated here.

Each year, the state nursery grows and sells 4.5 to 6.5 million tree seedlings - a large chunk of them loblolly pine but also hazelnuts, black locusts, crabapples and so many more. They go to help reforest Maryland land, create coastal buffers to protect the bay, bolster wildlife habitat and sustain the timber industry.

The state of Delaware has been a big customer since it closed its own nursery years ago. Many of the nursery's clients are homeowners, people who bought 5-acre lots and then tired of cutting the grass.

"There's no bigger waste of time than mowing the lawn," said Richard Garrett, the nursery manager, who has run the place since the late 1990s.

Aside from the Wye descendants, which can be purchased one at a time, nothing in the Ayton catalog can be sold in bundles smaller than 100, enough to populate a quarter of an acre. Anything smaller, Garrett figures, is a landscaping job. Discounts are given when seedlings are purchased by the thousand.

Start of season

Harvest season has just started with the hardwoods - the fastest-growing segment of what is for sale. Much of the work is done by hulking steel machines that dig up the seedlings as they make their way through the fields, but there is plenty of work still done by hand.

By spring, when it's time to do the most labor-intensive harvest - the pines, which are more fragile and must be processed quickly - Garrett contracts out to a temporary work force that can handle 275,000 seedlings a day using a relatively low-tech system that involves a conveyor belt and a machete.

This time of the year, though, is occupied with plans for how to get the 20,000 pounds of seed he will need to start the planting cycle over again.

Garrett puts in an order each fall with each county's forest service, asking for various quantities of seed: a certain number of red oak acorns, black walnuts, dogwood berries, persimmon seeds. Some, like the black walnuts, cannot be collected by machine and must be raked up and tossed into buckets or gathered by hand.

Volunteer collectors

Bryan Seipp, a forester with the Potomac Conservancy, coordinates a four-year-old program called Growing Native, which picks up some of the slack. About 6,000 volunteers fan out in Maryland and Virginia to help collect what is needed and then donate it to nurseries in their respective states. It's partly an education program - why trees are important to the watershed, how to identify different trees - but at its heart it is about gathering those seeds.

"It's not just about teaching people and engaging them in some sort of activity. It's about getting seed to the nursery," Seipp said. "What we give them is only a small fraction of what they need, but every little bit helps."

Last year, Growing Native provided 20,000 pounds of seed - enough to grow 1.5 million trees. This year, nature wasn't as cooperative - Seipp suspects the springtime swarm of cicadas could be a culprit - and they got 6,000 pounds.

When his crews can't get enough and the volunteers come up short, Garrett has to buy them. On a recent morning, he badgered the UPS deliveryman, who visits daily. Garrett has been waiting for a delivery of red oak acorns from Pennsylvania - more than 50 boxes weighing more than 60 pounds apiece. "I hope they ain't lost," he told the man in brown, "because they're too hard to find this year."

The Ayton nursery is self-sufficient - for every dollar spent, it has to take in a dollar. The annual budget runs about $600,000, he said.

Nursery's history

The state's first nursery opened in the early 1900s in College Park, mostly to grow trees to be planted along Maryland's highways. It moved to Harmans, near what is now Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 1949. When the completion of Route 100 was slated to slice the property in half, the Department of Natural Resources decided to move it to this parcel on the shore. That was in 1995.

The first planting season was something of a disaster. "It was very ugly," Garrett said. There were new soils and new conditions, and everything had to be adapted. But soon it was, and there have been many successful growing seasons since.

'Pretty low odds'

Not as successful have been the efforts to grow clones of the original Wye Oak. They started in 1999, as foresters realized that the ancient and hobbled tree would not live forever. They grafted the tree in an effort to create versions genetically identical to the hardy old champion. Of 1,000 grafts, only 33 or 34 survived to become living trees of their own - a poor survival rate.

"What's 30 out of 1,000? That's pretty low odds," Garrett said. "If you were just grafting any white oak, it wouldn't be worth it. But since this was the Maryland state tree ... it became worthwhile to do it."

As soon as Garrett heard that the oak had been felled in a 2002 thunderstorm, he raced to the scene with ice and coolers, hoping to save some of the live buds to do some last-minute grafting. It was a month earlier than he liked to do the work, and the 300-some buds he gathered that day yielded just one viable seedling.

Spreading them out

For now, the surviving Wye Oak clones live on the Ayton property. When the time is right, he said, he plans to plant one in the state park in Wye Mills, where the original spent so many years. He will also spread some of them out to other state properties to protect them from insect infestations or weather problems.

When those seedlings start to produce acorns, seedlings grown from them will again be 50 percent Wye Oak. The Wye Oak descendants being sold for $25 apiece through the Ayton nursery are 25 percent Wye Oak because they are grown from the acorns of Wye Oak seedlings that have thrived over the years across Maryland and the country.

The 1,000 Wyes for sale this year will be the last for a while. This was a bad year for Wye Oak acorns, too, Garrett said, and he has none to grow for next year. It's just another piece of the cyclical and unpredictable nature of the tree business.

"What you stick in the ground this fall," he said, "you have no idea what will come up next spring."

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