Preserving the George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware with cuttings No.1
"Time and Tide Wait for No Man"
By Joshua Peter Loper
It is truly amazing the plethora of plants and animals that live on our wondrous planet, each one of them striving to find its own place in the world. The sycamore tree is no different. The earliest we can find the grand sires of Plantanus Occidentalis in the fossil record is in the Cretaceous Period. That is 100 million years ago, during what is greatly noted by history as the last age of the dinosaurs. Passing on down through the millenniums and centuries these trees continued to survive. During those millennia, humans learned through time that plants not only provide food and resources, they also provide enjoyment and beauty. The same is true for trees. Just look at the amount of national, state, county, city, and town parks in America alone.
The George Washington Witness Tree may have been purposely planted. It may also have accidentally grown and been allowed to continue to live. The truth is, we will never know for certain. American Sycamores have long been admired, not just for making buttons, but for the fact they make such good shade trees. In the eighteenth century, they became very popular. They were known as a tree a young man could plant as a sapling and sit under to enjoy a full-grown shade tree as an old man. So, how old is our tree?
In fact, with the rot inside the George Washington Witness Tree, it is hard to assign an exact age. We know it was fully grown when General Washington held his council of war there in 1777. The best guess by our professional friends jointly agreed upon took several months of research and testing. The arborists, horticulturalists, and experts we have consulted say it is over 350 years old. That age was agreed upon in 2021. Kim Burdick, the Chief Historian and Resident Docent at the Hale-Byrnes House, invited me to come and help give tours. "Ma Burdick," as I call her, is a great historian, and an even greater person. I first met her when I joined the George Washington Society of Delaware when I was a young child.
Time, as it always does, continued to roll inexorably forward, as the unstoppable wave it has always been. In 2021, Ma Burdick asked if I would like to come help give tours at the Hale-Byrnes House and help with the archives. When I returned after a span of almost fifteen years, the George Washington Witness Tree had deteriorated considerably. I was told of the wonderful project the Hale-Byrnes House Board had for preserving the tree in a painting by Bryant White. However, I asked, "What about the tree itself?" I was told, "The tree was too simply far gone."
"I have an idea" are some of the very best and most frightening words that may ever be the precursor to the transmission of a human interaction. In short, dear reader, I had an idea. In the middle of that conversation about the tree, I had an on the fly, spur-of-the-moment, half-baked, enthusiastically American, can-do but I have no idea how to do it, idea! Simply expressed, it was, "Tree plus life equals good. Tree plus dead equals bad." Amazingly, this neat little historical project started as just that. A singular, simple thought that popped up in my usually coherent inner stream of consciousness made up of neuroelectric impulses called my brain.
I was always told as a child, "Make hay while the sun shines." I have always loved this good old American axiom. It is true as time and tide make shipwrecks of us all. The George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware could live another five years, it could blow over in the next storm, or the State of Delaware could chop it down as they have discussed about before. We all, just like the tree, can meet our end anytime, so why chance it? No one else was doing anything to save the tree that I knew of. I asked Ma Burdick is anyone else doing anything and she said, "No." I then asked, "Can I try?" She smiled and said, "Ok."
I immediately registered the tree on monumental trees as American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) '54211'. See also, the listing on the Native Tree Society. I then got in touch with many great tree enthusiasts and professionals. I had no idea what to do. I have never done this before. However, armed with permission and a true wish for this beautifully venerable old tree to survive, I continued. Most places I contacted never got back to me, did not care, or told me it's too late. Nil desperandum, just like the tree that had already stalwartly survived centuries. Then, Baker Creek Seed Company sent me a very nice email with a few links pointing me in the right direction. Armed with this information, my new friends, and a direction, I continued.
The almost-neolithic idea of how to preserve the tree took hold. My wife said I had the expression of what it must have looked like when ancient man figured out fire. I really did not discover anything new to the world, but to me, it was groundbreaking. I wanted to save the George Washington Witness Tree, not the tree's seeds. Seeds are second generation. No offense to them, but I wanted to try to save the original! That meant tree cuttings. I had always been surrounded by the great, historic, and old trees growing up in Greenwich, New Jersey. This, and my love for history, I am sure planted the seed in my mind as a child that eventually grew into this massive project.
With information from others, and research, I designed special grow cups before they would be transferred to specially designed beds for cuttings. Then, double checking I had permission to take the cuttings, I left on my little quest. My wife lovingly joked by saying, "Our intrepid hero sallied forth." Personally, I believe I probably looked like the slightly more rotund version of the intrepid hero Ichabod Crane as I gathered oh so many cuttings. Some I used rooting hormone on, as well as many other techniques. As these little cuttings struggled for life, I did all that I could. For most of the cuttings, there was such a state of decay and sickness that, despite my own best efforts, I watched most still succumb to that inevitable tide. Watching them die over the next year in my apartment for a myriad of reasons was actually sad. However, a few survived. Funny enough, they were the control group that did not get special hormones, nor anything else. They started out in only a soupy mud before being transferred to the grow beds.
OK, now we have little George Washington Witness Trees! One would be saved to be replanted were the "Big" George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware was when it comes down. So, what happens to the other two "little" George Washington Witness Trees? I would now need to find them all worthy homes. They would have to be on protected land to give them the best chance at living. This was a requirement so someone could not just cut it down. I wanted to find a place that had similar soil composition to where the "Big" tree is. I found several sites and one great place quickly said yes. Pittsgrove, New Jersey, wanted one and, after a few meetings, and some paperwork, the first tree had its home. On April eighteenth, two thousand and twenty-two, my father, wife, and I planted the "first little" George Washington Witness Tree at the Pittsgrove Municipal Building. It was a beautiful day on the drive over from Delaware. As we were planting the tree, the temperature dropped and it began to rain. Then, it began to sleet. It only got worse overnight. On April twenty-third, twenty twenty-two, the unveiling was set and ready to go. My wife and I hit massive traffic on the way to New Jersey and we showed up five minuets before the ceremony was supposed to start. My dad walked over to me and quietly said, "Don't worry, we will replant 'little tree number 2' here later this week." My heart dropped into my stomach. As we picked our way through the crowd, I finally saw the tree. The "little" George Washington Witness Tree looked dead. It looked really dead! The hail and frost had done it. I watched as the last two little dead shriveled leaves left on the now dark brown stick limply moved with the breeze. The entire time I acted as master of ceremonies for the unveiling, I was thinking, My God it's dead, another one is dead. We have one less. After the dedication ended, I needed a break. Coordinating the tree, people, news, answering all the emails, and phone calls had worn me out. I told my father, "Dad, we will talk about replanting the tree on Friday." Thursday, my father called me and the first thing out he exclaimed was, "It is a miracle! The little tree has several leaves around its base." From April to September of that year, it had grown happy and healthy. By October, that little twig that I had gathered, I had raised into a sapling, It had grown to several feet tall, and was now taller than me!
"Time and tide wait for no man!"
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Clerk's Tale
Historian Joshua Loper with No.1
This photograph was taken on 10/7/2023. The tree is now over 12 feet tall.
Above is the GWWT from Cutting No.1
This photograph was taken on 10/7/2023