The cuttings that had taken root while still attached to the tree are harvested by Tanya Blankenburg, of the Niagara Parks Horticulture School, and her students. NPCA

Niagara Parks Horticulture School uses grafting technique to preserve the DNA of the world’s oldest Sugar Maple

Pelham’s Comfort Maple, already an estimated 540 years old, will become immortal if an experimental partnership between the NPCA and the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture succeeds. The oldest Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum) in North America (and likely the world) is being “cloned” in a process called “air layering” by a team from the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture, led by instructor Tanya Blankenburg.

The project to preserve the tree’s DNA was supposed to be a legacy project to celebrate the NPCA’s 60th year in 2019, but at the time the Authority was in a state of disarray and trying to keep a low profile, so the project proceeded without much fanfare.

After a thorough health assessment to ensure the maple was strong enough to withstand the invasive procedure, Blankenburg and her students selected 15 branches for the air layering process. The branches chosen were high in the canopy, both to prevent interference from curious residents and because the healthiest branches were found there. A bucket lift was used to reach high into the canopy, both to perform the grafting procedure in the spring and to harvest the cuttings in the fall.

Healthy branches from the canopy were selected to have a small cut made and a small tongue of wood peeled back. The wound was then treated with rooting hormones, wrapped in peat moss and bound with plastic. When goes well, the branch produces roots that will form a new tree when cut and planted, and the saplings will contain 100 per cent of the DNA from the original tree.

According to Renée Bisson, of the NPCA, other methods of saving the tree’s unique characteristics were considered and discarded. Branches of the tree could be cut and grafted onto rootstock from another sugar maple sapling, but in that case, while the new tree would be almost a perfect copy, the root sapling’s DNA would still be present. Over the years, the NPCA has also collected seeds from the big tree and used them to grow offspring, but in this case half the DNA of the new tree comes from another maple. It is thought that the Comfort Maple may have environmental advantages such as sandy loam soil or a favourable climate, but nothing really explains its incredible longevity except its unique DNA. According to MonumentalTrees.com, the Comfort Maple’s closest competitor for age is the “Father Maple” in Michigan, which is a relatively youthful 349-380 years old.

The 15 branches were harvested in October. They are dormant over the winter and upon their revival this spring will be nurtured in the Niagara Parks arboretum for two to three years until they are strong enough to be transplanted. Under the agreement, the NPCA and the Parks Commission will split all surviving trees, with the Parks Commission intending to plant the descendants of the Comfort Maple along the Niagara Parkway. The NPCA will plant their trees at undisclosed locations on their properties, fearing theft of the unique saplings. Bisson notes that people routinely steal the seeds from the tree and have even taken the copper conductor that grounded the tree to protect it from lightning strikes. It has been damaged by lightning many times.

The Comfort Maple has a prominent place in the history and culture of the Pelham area. It appears prominently on the Town’s Coat of Arms. It was growing long before the first of the United Empire Loyalist families came to the area (in fact, it was growing before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean), with the Secord family being the first to claim the land on which it grew. They sold to the Comfort family, who eventually partnered with the NPCA in the 1960s to ensure the preservation of the tree, and when the Coyne family bought the land in the 1990s, the agreement came with the deed. The NPCA will continue to lease the land and maintain the tree as long as it lives.

While it is still “quite healthy,” according to Bisson, one large portion is weakening and there are signs that it isn’t as robust as it once was. The health assessment that was undertaken before the air layering took place was positive enough to give the go ahead for the procedure, but “there is always worry about pathogens that could be introduced by the process,” said Bisson.

Blakenburg, who grew up in Pelham and often ate her lunch under the Comfort Maple while en route to her co-op placement from E. L. Crossley, has a special attachment to the ancient tree. It’s a relationship she is glad to pass along to her students.

“The bigger picture of what happens down the road I feel is a valuable part of this project. For students getting to be part of the preservation of this historic tree is something won’t fully sink in until many years later.”

Commenting on the future of the tree, Blakenburg says that “the reality is that is looks really healthy. It’s probably going to well outlive me and probably my children and their children.”

The Comfort Maple will also live on thanks to another enterprise undertaken by the NPCA. A few years back, when Conservation Authority Superintendent Mich Germain was trimming some of the dead wood, he was approached by a local wood turner who wanted to make a pen from the famous tree. Now Germain provides all the wood he trims to Fenwick wood turner Marv Ens, whose idea for a single pen has turned into a cottage industry. In 2015, the first year of production, Ens turned out more than 400 of the pens, which the Conservation Authority sold to raise funds.

Since then, Ens has continued to produce the keepsake Comfort Maple ballpoint pens and has recently added a special edition fountain pen. The pens made of wood from Pelham’s famous tree have been given as gifts and become treasured mementos all over the world. It’s a way that both the history of the area and its natural assets are being preserved. In the words of Tanya Blankenburg, “I think it is important that as our community keeps growing that residents actively take part in the conservation of this beautiful landscape.”