Horticulturalists are trying to clone this 540-year-old maple tree so its legacy can live on

The Comfort Maple has survived wind, lightning strikes and seed thieves. Now a group of horticulture students are trying to preserve the tree's DNA and ensure its legacy lives on for lifetimes to come.

'It was a seedling, they say, when Christopher Columbus landed,' instructor says

The Comfort Maple in Pelham, Ont. is believed to be more than 540 years old. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

At the end of a rutted dirt road in Pelham, Ont., towers a living piece of Canadian history that's been targeted by seed thieves, weathered centuries of wind and storms and has even survived a lightning strike or two.

It's called the Comfort Maple, and for more than 540 years it's been growing along with the country that surrounds it.

The scarred survivor is believed to be the oldest sugar maple in Canada and was designated a heritage tree in June 2000.

"It was a seedling, they say, when Christopher Columbus landed," said Tanya Blankenburg, an instructor curator with the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture.

While it might seem a little bit backward to focus on the future when considering something that's seen so much history, a group of students led by Blankenburg are doing just that. They are using a special technique to try to preserve the maple's DNA and ensure, by planting clones of the tree, that its legacy lives on for lifetimes to come.

The tree holds a special place in the hearts of many, including Blankenburg, who has her own history with it.

As a child she used to ride her horse through the field nearby. When she was in high school and working a co-op nearby she'd eat her lunch under its shady branches, showering the crew caring for it with questions.

"Every time I come here someone always pulls up and is in awe of the tree," said the horticultural instructor, adding she takes all of her students to visit the maple. "I bring them out here to show them a part of Canadian history."

The tree towers over a small piece of land that's been owned by the Comfort family since 1816. (Dan Taekema/CBC Hamilton)

Blankenburg said she was driving past the maple a few months back when she started to wonder whether or not air-layering had ever been used to preserve its DNA.

Air-layering is a process that starts by scarring the bark of a branch, then wrapping a section of branch with rooting hormones in peat moss. The tip stays on the tree, which continues feeding it for eight to 12 weeks.

The approach does very little damage, and unlike seeds, which result in mixed genetics, it offers 100 per cent of the tree's DNA, according to Blankenburg.

"You're basically photocopying the genetics of the tree," she explained.

A bit of plastic wrap used for the air layering flutters in the breeze high up in the maple's canopy. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) and the school of horticulture decided to team up and try it. Students wrapped branches during the spring, and on a cold, windy October morning, workers used a bucket truck to remove them.

"It's like Christmas and we're unwrapping presents," one of the men said as they carefully clipped off the ends of branches and brought them to the ground.

Tanya Blankenburg, an instructor curator with the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture is using a special technique to create genetic copies of the 540 year old Comfort Maple. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"This is all about preserving the legacy of the tree and … if something were to happen to it down the road, we have full genetics in a replicated version," said Blankenburg, who pointed out root buds that were starting to poke through on some of the 13 stems that survived.

The cuttings will be potted then stored at the parks commission's secure facilities at its botanical gardens until next year, when they can be planted in an arboretum with other rare trees.

A crew used a bucket truck to reach the sections of branches far above the ground. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Security is important because neither the NPCA nor the family that owns the land the tree stands on want to see the maple monetized.

Not everyone feels the same way, even though removing natural items from a conservation area is illegal.

"We have had some seed theft over the past five to seven years," said NPCA communications manager Geneviève-Renée Bisson. "The reason why that's serious is that it's only a seed year every two years, so we're not going to get a high amount of seeds regularly."

The NPCA has harvested some of the maple's seeds and planted saplings in the past but have kept their location a closely guarded secret so they won't be stolen or vandalized.

Each section of the branch was carefully wrapped in plastic and peat moss, along with rooting hormones. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Even the maple's own setting doesn't exactly demand attention.

Despite its natural and biological significance, only a small, swinging metal sign with the NPCA logo advertises its presence.

It's easy to drive by unless you're looking carefully. A bumpy single-lane track leads to a small parking lot, a patch of mulch and the maple, soaring above the waist-high conifers planted in the field around it.

Today, the tree stands about 24 metres tall at its crown, with a twisted trunk that's about six metres in circumference and the NPCA says "symbolizes Canada's strength and tradition."

Its size is somewhat unusual, according to Bisson, who said various theories on how it's managed to become so massive are being kicked around by the scientific community.

One possible explanation for its growth, she notes, is that the sandy loam soil it's planted in allows the tree to suck up nutrients.

Then again, the tree could simply be a "freak of nature."

Tanya Blankenburg, an instructor and curator with the Niagara Parks Commission unwraps the layering and points out some root buds that are starting to poke through. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

But does that mean the baby comfort maples will have some sort of super DNA?

Blankenburg said it's a bit more complicated than that. She noted the tree grew on its own without any sort of care, but agreed the soil, elevation and the amount of water it's able to absorb could all be factors when it comes to its enormous size and longevity.

Whether the next generation of cloned comfort maples will also be 500- or 600-year-old monsters remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the mother tree continues to weather blows.

The maple was struck by lighting in the 1980s, a blow that went undiagnosed, allowing rot to creep in. 

NPCA staff responded by calling in an expert who dug out one of the tree's major trunks then filled in the hole with concrete and rigged up some wiring to keep the ever-spreading canopy from splitting.

Lightning struck again this past summer, leaving yet another burn mark near the base of the tree.

Some of the damage the Comfort Maple has suffered over the years can be seen from the back. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"It's part of the legacy of the tree that it's sustained this many storms and fires and lightning strikes … it's still here," said Blankenburg. "[And] today we get to take a piece home."

Even after all this time, there's still intense interest around the tree. When a storm sweeps through the region, Blankenburg finds herself crossing her fingers and hoping it can withstand the high winds.

And every time something happens to the tree the rumour mill starts churning and there are whispers it's falling apart, but the instructor said based on the most recent assessment it seems the maple won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

"The reality is that ... it looks really healthy," she explained. "It's probably going to well outlive me and probably my children and their children."

Concrete and cables were used to keep the tree together after a lightning strike in the 1980s. (Dan Taekema/CBC)


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