The giant sequoia tree lovingly planted in the grounds of naturalist John Muir’s California home has stood as a living link with the father of America’s national parks for 130 years. 

Carried from the mountains of Sierra Nevada as a small sapling wrapped in the pioneering Scot’s dampened handkerchief, in the right conditions it could live for 3000 years and soar to 300ft tall. 

Instead, a fatal combination of the wrong soil, unsuitable climate and a vicious fungal disease clogging its arteries, has sent it into its death throes.  Worse still, while efforts to throw it a lifeline by using modern technology to clone it were successful, plans to plant its offspring in the shadow of Muir’s tree were met with silence. 

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It’s now emerged that the test tube saplings – raised from cuttings taken from the crown of Muir’s tree and nurtured in petri dishes using a cocktail of chemicals and processes to replicate its mountain habitat – have been lost. 

The squandered opportunity has frustrated David Milarch, of the Michigan-based Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, which aims to propagate the apparently superior DNA of the world’s ancient trees, and use their clones to repopulate dying woodlands and create new forests.

“Sequoias are really tough to clone, but we did it,” he said. “Three or four clones from the tree that John Muir planted grew to about a foot tall.

But when we told the people at John Muir’s home that they were ready to be planted, they didn’t want them. There was no interest.  “It’s too cold for them in north Michigan where we are.

They could have survived if they’d been planted outdoors in the right location, but they had to stay in the lab, and we lost them.”

Undaunted, Mr Milarch is now turning attention to the Dunbar-born naturalist’s native homeland, with an ambitious plan that could see forests of supersize, carbon-sucking redwoods planted in Scotland, with clones of the world’s oldest trees at their heart.

As well as being the giants of the natural world, coast redwoods and giant sequoias can grow at a rate of up to six feet a year and have a remarkable ability to capture carbon.  

“We could create a forest of redwoods in Scotland that would last forever,” said Mr Milarch. “Coast redwoods and giant sequoia capture CO2 ten times faster than any other species.  “If everyone in Scotland planted one giant sequoia or redwood, they would pay their climate change debt for life.”

A similar project has already been carried out at Cornwall’s Eden Project, where 100 clones grown by the Archangel laboratories from some of America’s most impressive ancient redwoods, have already been planted. 

They include a sapling cloned from the famous Fieldbrook Stump, a northern Californian redwood thought to be 3,500 years old when it was reputedly felled in 1890 by millionaire William Waldorf Astor as the result of a drunken bet. 

The tree left a stump 35 feet in diameter. However, material taken from basal shoots has produced new trees which share its genetic makeup – effectively bringing the ‘dead’ tree back to life.  Other saplings were created from living redwoods believed to be up to 4,000 years old.

While some argue the world’s oldest and largest trees owe their size and longevity to good luck, others like Mr Milarch believe they have superior genes which help them outlive their rivals.  He argues that by planting trees cloned from these ‘champion’ specimens, future generations will be able to witness their magnificent scale.

 “If we don’t do things like this, these trees will be gone,” he added. “Because of climate change, all the sequoias in California are going to die eventually, it’s getting too hot and too dry.”

Mr Milarch also wants to use his laboratory’s technology to capture the genetic material of some of Scotland’s oldest and most iconic trees – such as the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, thought to be at least 3,000 years old. 

The material could be added to a global archive of ‘champion’ trees, with their clones replanted in the hope they share their parents’ longevity. He has already carried out a similar project in Ireland, where some of the oldest oaks descended from Ice Age forests were successfully cloned and returned to ancient woodlands.

Among them was one grown from a large living oak in Raheen, near Scarriff, Co Clare, said to have been planted by Brian Boru, the Irish king, 1000 years ago.  

Mr Milarch said: “We sent a team to look for the oldest oak trees in Ireland and found 22 that were between 700 to 1000 years old. We successfully cloned them.

“Now we need to do the same with Scotland’s oldest trees, before they are lost forever.”

The Archangel project uses a method called vegetative propagation which involves creating identical plants from a cutting taken from a parent tree identified as being particularly old or much larger than its rivals.

In the case of coast or Californian redwoods, which are the world’s tallest trees, and giant sequoias which are the most massive, climbers scale hundreds of feet to take cuttings from the tops of trees, or collect shoots which sprout from the base of stumps. 

The cuttings are then spliced on to the roots of saplings or dipped in hormones, then bedded in peat or agar and grown in baby food sized jars in specially controlled conditions. Cloning is regarded as preferable to growing a tree from seed, which dilutes the genes by 50%. 

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The Archangel project has so far cloned over 130 species of trees, with redwood clones added to woodlands in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Germany and Chile.  

In America, where more than 95% of the country’s magnificent redwoods have been lost, clones are replacing dead trees and being planted in more northerly locations. It’s hoped the form of assisted migration will help the species survive climate change.

Mr Milarch says he has up to 400 redwood clones grown from ‘champion’ trees which could be shipped to Scotland to build a forest similar to the woodland created at the Eden Project.  

The eco-attraction recently named Dundee as the proposed location for a Scottish offshoot and has said it wants to create a UK-wide ancient tree cloning project.  Eden Project co-founder Sir Tim Smit said: “We want to create a nexus; ourselves and everyone involved in the heritage of ancient trees, from organisations like Historic Scotland and the Woodland Trust, to church wardens.  “It is marvellous to think of collecting material from our ancient trees and growing them. To create several thousand versions of these trees and to plant them around the country would be a good thing.”