seedling of old tree
In this photo provided by the Champion Tree Project International, a bristlecone pine seedling is seen during the summer of 2004.
updated 12/13/2005 8:41:20 PM ET 2005-12-14T01:41:20

The National Cathedral will celebrate the holidays this year with an unusual Christmas tree: a pine seedling whose parent is said to be the oldest known tree on earth.

The seedling is a gift from the Champion Tree Project International. It breeds and clones the world's oldest and largest trees in hopes of compiling a living archive of the genes that give them their longevity.

"It's older than the great pyramids, older than Stonehenge," project President David Milarch said of the 4,770-year-old "Methuselah" bristlecone pine whose cone bore the seedling the cathedral will receive. "When Christ walked the earth it was already 2,700 years old."

The Methuselah pine grows at an altitude of 10,000 feet in the White Mountains near the California-Nevada border. It gets its name from a Hebrew patriarch mentioned in Genesis who was supposed to have lived for 969 years, making him the embodiment of longevity.

Milarch said project participants got special permission from the U.S. Forest Service to collect cones from Methuselah, one of which yielded the National Cathedral's seedling.

"That's pretty good for a 5,000-year-old tree to be able to reproduce itself," Milarch said.

Cathedral staff hope to plant the seedling in a special grove of trees used by students at its elementary school. Those trees have biblical connections and other interesting horticultural features.

"It has a biblical reference and is therefore of educational and instructional value to the children," said Dede Petri, president of the All Hallow's Guild, the support group responsible for beautifying the cathedral's grounds.

The tree will be formally presented Wednesday at the Land Development Breakthrough Conference at the Washington Convention Center. Milarch's group will also announce that its scientists had successfully cloned the "Hippocrates tree" which since 1961 has been on the grounds of the National Institutes of Health in suburban Bethesda, Md.

That tree is said to be the offspring of the sycamore in Greece under which Hippocrates, the medical philosopher, lectured. It was a gift to the United States from the Greek ambassador, but has been sick lately. Its clone will join it on the NIH property, and hopefully fare better.

"Both trees are several thousand years old and their progeny will ensure that these trees live on in our nation's capital," Milarch said. "They're Christmas gifts."

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