Squat, homely, dwarfed by the stately oaks and poplars nearby and unnoticed by the tourists passing in horse-drawn carriages, it's a tree that only birds and nut-hungry squirrels could love.
But on Thursday, the 100-year-old European beech on Central Park's Cherry Hill was the center of attention — chosen by city officials as the first of 25 "historical" trees to be cloned as part of a plan to add a million new trees to streets, parks and public spaces over the next decade.
Agriculture students from a Queens high school rode hydraulic-powered tree-trimmers' buckets to upper branches of the 60-foot tree and snipped off 6- to 12-inch sections of new growth, to be sent to a scientific tree nursery in eastern Oregon. If all goes well, the genetic-match saplings will be back in two years, to be replanted as part of the "Million Trees NYC" project, announced last year.
"We want to break the stereotype of New York as skyscrapers and sidewalks," Parks Commissioner Adrian Benape said. "New York abounds in historical trees."
The target trees, five in each of New York's five boroughs, include nine different species. All were selected by borough foresters as historical for having existed for at least a century — either as fixtures of the urban landscape or as having special significance to local communities.
Among those are what may be the city's oldest tree, the St. Nicholas elm — also known as "the dinosaur" — in upper Manhattan, which George Washington is said to have walked under during the American Revolution, 230 years ago.
City partners in the cloning effort include the Central Park Conservancy, a private group that manages the 840-acre park; Bartlett Tree Experts, a century-old Connecticut-based company that has tree care contracts in New York, 25 other states, Canada, England and Ireland; the nonprofit Tree Fund, and the Coleman Co., a camping equipment maker, whose coolers would be used to ship the cuttings to Oregon.
David McMaster, a Bartlett vice president, said the cloning would target several "Olmsted trees," dating from the creation of Central Park by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1850s.
"Our intention here is to go after significant trees that we know Olmsted planted over 150 years ago," he said. These include a shingle oak and a willow oak, among others.
Benape said being less than beautiful had no bearing on the European beech tree's potential contribution to a greener Gotham.
"Like the other trees to be cloned, it has withstood the test of time and the indignities of urban life," he said. "These trees as a result tend to be hardier species, inherently disease resistant. They are a great reaffirmation of the importance of nature in New York City — trees so good that people are looking to clone them."
McMaster said the cloning is a two-stage process in which cuttings are grafted to roots of the same species at the Schichtel Nursery in Oregon, and the new growth is later peeled away to create a sapling with the DNA of the original tree.
The result is a genetically identical tree, although not one identical in shape to the original. Some trees — ash, oak and elm — that are particularly susceptible to disease must be certified as healthy to be cloned, he said.
Each of the cuttings will produce 10 genetic copies of the original tree, allowed to grow to 2 to 3 feet before being sent back to New York for replanting.
Janet Bornancin, executive director of the Wheaton, Ill.-based Tree Fund, a research and education organization, said studies show trees live an average of 80 years in forests, 50 years in parks and about seven years on city streets.
Environmental pressures on the latter include air pollution, road salt, tightly packed, nutrient-poor soil and cramped space for root growth — even wrapping holiday lights too tightly, she said.
"Every time a jet aircraft flies over the city it drops kerosene that damages trees," McMaster added.
Standing against the backdrop of winter-barren trees, McMaster said, "The grandeur of what we're doing is all around us — trying to preserve the propagation of these significant trees to preserve their DNA and legacy. We are fortunate to have trees that George Washington walked under."