Cloning a tree that grew from a seed that went to the moon doesn’t sound like much. It’s still a ragged shrub, a flurry of bright green leaves on a tall, six-foot stem. But in 20 years or so, this American sycamore will be a massive presence in the country Foolish tree nurseryAn unusual collection of about 250 trees planted by Tucker Marder, a 33-year-old artist, on five acres of his family’s land in East Hampton, New York.
Arboretums, undetermined, are public gardens dedicated to a wide variety of trees and shrubs. The word roughly translates from Latin as “a place to grow trees,” and some arboretums are devoted to a single species, such as conifers or fruit trees. This arboretum is dedicated to stories – Mr. Marder describes it as a cultural archive of environmental storytelling and is as much an art project as it is a gardening adventure – which means every tree here has a good story and thread behind it.
Since trees cannot speak, Mr. Marder is Boswell. (Tours by appointment only.) As Agnes Dennis, the artist who planted a wheat field in lower Manhattan in 1982 as a sweet-smelling answer to business on Wall Street, and Maya Lin, the architect who planted mortuary rice in Madison Square Park in 2021—as It happened, Mr. Marder put his hand in this installation – Mr. Marder is doing environmental activism. Not that he would describe the Foolish Tree Arboretum that way.
He said: “It sounds cliché to say that storytelling is important, but stories capture people’s imaginations, and if you can have a forest full of storytelling that might be a good thing.
He continued, “Personification is often frowned upon, but it is a way for people to form meaningful relationships with nature. It’s not always a bad thing to say that a tree looks goofy or that tree looks silly or that tree was in a movie or has a history. That’s it.” correct relationships.
Because if people felt more connected to nature, he suggested, they might not be so smug about it.
On a cold June afternoon, smoke from wildfires in Canada, one of many environmental disasters exacerbated by climate change, begins to darken the sky. Down the road, the native beech forest in East Hampton was showing signs of a disease that was slowly destroying beech trees throughout the Northeast.
However, Mr. Marder is not Cassandra. his own artwork, which often involves performances and puppets, has a prankster spirit. Today, in his pale green work shirt, lime green pants, and bushy beard, he looked like a big dwarf. As we walked, guinea fowls were bobbing through the trees, their blue and red heads bobbing. A rusty tractor is brightly painted with teeth, eyes and squiggles. Folly has an artist residency program, and last year Poncely Creation, an art group, asked to turn the tractor into a puppet. It was all very festive.
We met magnolia oversized leaves, which produce the largest flowers of any deciduous tree in North America. Its flowers, the size of my head, smelled of a warm southern evening. It is an ancient species, evolving 95 million years ago, long before there were bees. (They are pollinated by beetles, Mr. Marder explained.)
A walk in foolishness is a walk through time. Some of his stories are older than humans – Homo sapiens are relatively young in the world’s timeline, having entered the evolutionary picture less than half a million years ago. Nearby, there’s a teenage Osage orange full of spiky green flowers that will soon grow into what’s often called monkey’s brains, the neon green balls that all animals hate – the fruit tastes bad – and some say it’s kryptonite for crickets (it’s not).
The bramble orange evolved alongside the giant ground sloth that roamed the earth about 80 million years ago and considered its fruit a delicacy; Sloths died out about 10,000 years ago. The strange backstory of Osage oranges means the fruit is useless from an evolutionary point of view, Mr. Marder said, “because the animals they were designed for, the animals that ate them and then brought them out to spread their seeds are long gone.”
He added that this particular variety is called Cannonball because its fruit is two-thirds larger than a regular Osage orange, which means it’s more than two-thirds as useful. The anachronism pleases him. It is one of his favorite trees in the nursery.
“It’s the idea that it has no specific use, that fruit drives this disruptive presence as it rolls down hills and falls into parking lots where it can be crushed by cars or kicked by children,” he said. “We worked the hell out of them to create an army of Osage oranges to incorporate into landscape designs and art installations.”
Mr. Marder grows his trees from cuttings, a method known as cloning, which means the new plant is genetically identical to the original plant. It can be delicate work, especially if you practice graft propagation, as Mr. Marder often does, tying his cuttings on rootstocks. He also dabbles in topiary, having been inspired by a magician’s work Pearl Friarthe son of a farmer and former factory worker in Bishopville, South Carolina, who transformed his yard into an iconic sculpture garden by trimming nursery shrubs into fanciful shapes.
We wandered past a shaggy spruce trained by Mr. Marder. It looked like a giant leafy creature, like a woolly mammoth. A Serbian resin quintet sways and twists, its boughs mimicking the arboreal version of jazz hands. “I think they are the most attractive conifers,” said Mr. Marder. Behind them, he had split a sycamore sapling in two, and had been encouraging it to grow around the circular producing member, a project he was most excited about.
“A tree with a hole!” He said. “We can jump through it as poodles.”
Mr. Marder grew up on this property, which his grandparents had purchased in the 1950s. His parents, Kathleen and Charlie Marder, met at art school and moved back to East Hampton in their early twenties. Charlie Marder sold firewood and manure to pay the bills, and in the mid-1970s he began working with Alfonso Osorio, an eccentric artist and friend of painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock who had bought a storied property called The Creeks.
Charlie helped Mr. Osorio create what would become a world-famous collection of rare plants and conifers. Charlie had a gift for trees, and soon became the go-to guy for other wealthy tree collectors, such as Ben Hellerthe art collector, and then, inevitably, all the machines in the East End—and Martha Stewart—who could pay to buy the mature trees and move them around like garden ornaments.
MardersOpened in Bridgehampton in the early 1980s, Kathleen & Charlie’s Arboretum and Garden Center is like a horticultural museum of modern art, with wonderfully curated plants and mature trees. Locals describe Charlie as the tree whisperer for his deep knowledge. But Charlie said in a phone interview that Tucker “takes gardening to a whole new level.”
Mr. Marder finds his trees in a variety of ways. Some are chasing him. Others are gifts, such as a clone clone The sycamore that grew on the Greek island of Kos and under which Hippocrates taught medicine In about 460 B.C. it arrived in the United States in 1962, when the cuttings were granted by the government of Greece to the National Institutes of Health, who planted them on its soil. When the tree started to get sick, the National Institutes of Health asked nurseryman-turned-climate-change evangelist David Millarch to make a copy or two before dying.
Mr. Millarsh is a celebrity in the tree circles. He has been cloning old-growth redwoods and other ancient trees and propagating them through his non-profit foundation, Ancient Archangel Tree Archives. His idea is that these large trees are genetic stars, and his project aims to reforest the Earth with them, in an effort to save the planet from climate change. Mr. Millarch made a few clones of the Tree of Hippocrates for the National Institutes of Health and kept some copies for his private archives. After Mr. Marder made a pilgrimage to see it, and made a short film about it, Mr. Millarch gifted him a copy as well.
“Tucker is the real deal,” Mr. Millarch said. “He’s passionate about trees and the environment, and he puts his money where his mouth is, which he doesn’t open up very often. He has miracles growing in the nursery.”
“It’s a paradigm shift,” Millarsh added, noting how his work aligns with Mr. Marder’s. We have cloned the George Washington tree. We cloned Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and Teddy Roosevelt at Sycamore Hill and when we were cloning these historic trees with names, people flocked to this model, because it gave the tree a name and a face. He gave it life, and I think it’s a really great way to get people uninterested in trees to interest them by creating that story.”
Here is the story behind the fledgling moon tree. On the Apollo 14 flight to the Moon in 1971, one of the astronauts, Stewart Rosa, brought home a box of seeds – lobuli pine, gum, redwood, Douglas fir and sycamore. Mr. Rosa was an amateur shooter, and Seed’s journey consisted of observing the effects of deep space on them and raising awareness about the Forest Service. Back on Earth, the seeds were sprouted and grew into seedlings and donated to various organizations, including an elementary school in Penn State. Mr. Marder went to school some years ago, and took (when no one was looking) some scraps.
Cutting does no harm to the tree—it is like cutting off a lock of hair—and yet there are times when Mr. Marder has not made arrangements with any entity responsible for the tree he is after, so he will proceed with caution. He often wears a bright yellow jacket to make him appear more formal. “Sometimes I sit in front of the tree in my car for long periods of time,” he said. “It can be intimidating, depending on the politics of the venue or the tree. You don’t want to be mistaken for a vandal.”
Mr. Marder’s last task was to catch a piece of Anne Frank tree, a descendant of the horse chestnut, Anne was able to see from her window during the two years she was hiding in Amsterdam. There are a few in the United States, donated by the Anne Frank Foundation. The original tree died in 2010, but the foundation had already grown more than 100 chestnut seedlings.
Last winter, Mr. Marder made his move—but after taking his story (he refused to say what town and what location this particular tree was in), he got sucked into a crowd coming out of a sporting event. It took him three hours to find his car, and when he did, a policeman approached. Mr. Marder, restless and exhausted, thought he was about to be reprimanded for his tree theft, but the constable only wanted to tell him he was parked illegally. Four months later, she is slowly cutting herself down on the rootstock. It will be ready to be transplanted in the fall, and within three years or so, it will begin to look like a suitable tree.
Horse chestnuts grow relatively quickly, Mr. Marder said, but when you’re working with trees, you have to take a long view.