NYC Tree Gets a Second Life in China

It may not have been love at first sight, but the first time Dave Karnosky laid eyes on a giant Chinese elm tree in New York City's Central Park, he knew he was looking at something special.

That was about 25 years ago, and the elm is no longer there. It had to be destroyed in 1993 because it was rotting from the inside out and posed a danger to park visitors. That's unfortunate, because the elm had thrived in a region that should have been too cold, and in an urban environment that should have been too harsh, and it grew to majestic proportions, much larger than other Chinese elms.

And that could be the end of this story, except for one little fact. The great elm, known as Central Park Splendor, is alive and well, and it's living in China, its native land.

Karnosky, now a professor of forestry at Michigan Technological University, cloned the tree from leaf tissues he collected long ago, and he recently took 150 trees back to China. He delivered the small trees to scientists at three institutions there, and by the next day they were already planted in various nurseries.

A Tree With Royal Roots

"I thought this was really a neat thing to have preserved this tree and then sent it back to its homeland," says Karnosky. Scientists there were eager to get it, he says, because the Central Park elm is especially cold hardy and might extend the elm's range to northern China. Much of China is being swamped by growing deserts, and scientists there are eager to find any plants that can help stem that tide, Karnosky says.

Karnosky began this unusual project when he was working for the New York Botanical Gardens in the late 1970s. "The Arthur Ross Foundation asked me if I would take a look at a very large Chinese elm that was growing in Central Park," he says. The foundation, headquartered in New York City, has a long history of sponsoring conservation projects.

The 60-foot tree was believed to have been presented to New York City in the 1870s by the King of Prussia. It had caught the attention of the foundation because it appeared to be dying of old age, and would eventually have to be destroyed. The foundation wanted to know if Karnosky could propagate the tree so that it could hang around longer, even if in different settings.

The foundation also saw some commercial possibilities, because if the tree could be propagated, it could be marketed in areas that are too cold for Chinese elms. This was considered a special tree because most Chinese elms were grown in southern climates, and this one thrived in New York.

"That was quite unusual," Karnosky says.

Getting Past Authorities

He had little trouble growing new trees from cuttings, and he shared them with other scientists in the region. Today, many of them are growing in various New York City parks.

But in the meantime, elms across the country have fallen on very hard times. Dutch elm disease has wiped out most American elms. Some gardeners who have fought the aggressive root system of elms, and picked up the mess they leave behind each fall, might not shed any tears over the loss of thousands of elms. But to people like Karnosky, the decline of any species is something to worry about.

Central Park's Chinese elm was totally resistant to the disease, he says, and that's one more reason it was worth preserving.

But there was one thing blocking his dream of sending clones back to China. Because of the threat of spreading various elm diseases, China prohibited the importation of any elms. So trees grown in a nursery from cuttings wouldn't pass the test.

Karnosky returned to his lab with a determination to overcome that obstacle. Using tissue culture from leaves he had preserved, he grew new sprouts in laboratory conditions that were as clean as a medical clinic.

The "elm trees in a culture dish" proved acceptable to Chinese authorities, and last month Karnosky made the long trip to China with 150 small trees.

Central Park Splendor Lives!

OK, so he's not exactly saving the world here. But it's nice to know that a majestic tree that once towered over part of Central Park now thrives in its homeland.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.