Nebraska

Attack of the Clones: Thirty Years Later, A Taylor-Made Mystery Lives On

The year was 1978, and Allen Wilke slammed on the brakes during the summer.

He did this rather frequently. As a real botanist, he noticed everything around him, with the exception of the road itself. When he came upon a wild grapevine or flowering prickly pear in the ditch, he would suddenly turn around and go back the way he came. He would shuffle back to his gutted cargo van, take a photo and a cutting, and then continue on with his day. He drove around in shabby chinos and a pocket protector, and he frequently sent his son and daughter, who were dozing off in the backseat of his jerry-rigged vehicle, crashing forward with the rest of his gear.

At this point in time, the plantsman was on his own. While he was driving through the Sandhills on Highway 91, a mile west of Taylor, he was startled by the appearance of a tall and slender evergreen that reminded him of an Italian cypress. He applied the brakes with great force. He went the other way. And just like he had done so many times before, and just like he would do so many more times in the future, the owner of the Wilke Landscape Center in Columbus knocked on the door of an unknown person.

“Do you mind if I ask?”

The rancher took the plantsman up to the hill where there was an eastern redcedar that looked like a steeple rising behind a large number of snot-nosed cattle who were feeding at the trough. Marlin Britton, who had spent his whole life on the Sandhills, thought the tree was memorable, if not remarkable. Wilke was currently scrambling up the bank to get a better look at it, and he believed that it would be ideal for the landscaping sector in Nebraska. He grabbed a couple cuttings that were about 10 inches long, shook hands with Britton, and then continued on his way.

In the early 1980s, Wilke started selling a new kind of juniper tree that he termed the “Taylor Juniper.” This name was a play on both the tree’s origins and the naturally fitted appearance of the tree. However, according to his son Evan, “it wasn’t his forte to be marketing a new plant to the world.” The curious plantsman handed over all of his business interests in the Taylor Juniper to the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum on February 4, 1992. One month later, on the day that the arboretum publicly introduced his cherished tree variety to all registered nurseries in the state, he passed away.

After being introduced to the marketplace for the first time thirty years ago, the Taylor Juniper is now a common sight all over the state of Nebraska. It can be found anywhere from the town square in Taylor to the grounds of the state capitol in Lincoln; the gates of Wyuka Cemetery to The Gardens at Yanney Park; the track at Hastings College to the belltower at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Each tree is a perfect clone of the one mother tree that is located in Britton’s pasture, and come spring they load the nurseries with them, and by fall they are all gone.

“Every once in a while, I’ll be driving by one, and all of a sudden I’ll have this ‘Oh! Alan Britton, Marlin’s son, notes that he often hears people saying, “There’s one of dad’s trees!” “I don’t know how to explain it, but there is a thrill in my emotions.”

The village of Taylor, which has a population of 140 people, is famous now for two things: “The Villagers,” which are a series of plywood cutouts showing the town’s original residents in grayscale; and the “Taylor Juniper,” which is currently used to decorate every other property in the town. The information and welcome center The museum of historical artifacts. The previously used library. The recently opened library. The field used for football. The camping location. Backyards. Yards in the front. Ancient dwellings Brand New Houses Additionally.

According to Colt Kraus, who served as the former head of the Taylor Community Arboretum, “Now when you travel past Taylor, they’re everywhere.” Because, after all, what other options do we have?

Shortly after Wilke took his initial cuttings, Alan Britton fenced off the mother tree since he was aware that his father’s cattle frequently rubbed up against it. But in 1985, Britton decided to hang up his boots. The old fence was removed by the new owners. The cattle made their way back. The tree lost some of its needles. The drought continued to worsen. And then, in 2012, she passed away after being bullied to death by a group of younger cedars. Today, her own skeleton stands guard over the cemetery, seeming as if it were another villager on the hill, drained of all their vibrant colors.

Britton is quoted as saying, “I felt sad when I saw that.” “However, to the best of my knowledge, none of the trees that you see now are descendants of the original tree. They are the tree in question.

Wilke was aware from the very beginning that the seeds taken from the mother tree were not likely to produce an exact replica of the parent plant. On the other hand, cuttings have the same genetic make-up as the parent plant. Whether he rooted them or grafted them, he had the capacity to produce an exact replica that was tall, erect, and ascending toward the heavens.

He put those first cuttings in the ground and watered them. A handful of them started to take it more seriously. The others withered and died off. He was disheartened by the outcomes, so he dialed the number of a man named Don Cross, who ran a wholesale nursery in Minnesota. This nursery was one of the few remaining in the Midwest that still grafted trees.

Cross had much respect for the plantsman’s inquisitive nature. He agreed to assist, but only under one condition: if the grafts were successful, Cross Nursery could include the Taylor Juniper in their product catalog without having to pay any royalties.

“In no time at all, we were grafting 100 trees per year. Then 200. Then 300. Then 500. “Now we expand by more than 1,000 every year,” says Cross.

They put them on a ship and sent it to Wilke in Columbus. Lincoln is home to the state arboretum, and you should go there. To Connecticut and Oklahoma, in addition to the countless nurseries and shopping areas that are located in between.

“Today we’re going to look at the flagship tree from Cross Nursery.”

In addition, approximately one hundred are relocated to their ancient homeland in the Sandhills each year. The artist who is responsible for the Villagers, Marah Sandoz, now sells them in her gallery on the square for the price of $25 each.

However, the Taylor Juniper was not exactly a runaway success right away. By the beginning of the 2000s, Wilke’s new tree variety had almost entirely vanished from the commercial market.

Bob Henrickson, who is the assistant director of the state-wide arboretum, adds, “I tried to find out by calling around and asking people.” “None of the nurseries in Nebraska carried it, and the majority of them hadn’t even heard of it,” the author writes.

Therefore, the arboretum tried once more, this time elevating the profile of the Taylor Juniper by including it as one of the “Great Plants for the Great Plains” in the program that took place in the year 2003.

Henrickson states, “That’s something of which I’m rather proud.” “I believe that if I hadn’t done anything, it would still be forgotten about in the history books.”

In the summer of 2009, Taylor behaved in the same manner. A village park was given a facelift thanks to the efforts of a local group that was awarded a grant of $5,000 from the state arboretum. It also erected identification tags and memorial bricks, as well as two new welcome signs, and it planted sixty new trees, representing thirty different kinds. The town as a whole is currently recognized as a “Landscape Steward” site by the state arboretum, and it is home to well over one hundred Taylor Junipers, the tree that serves as the town’s centerpiece.

According to Kraus, “Every single one of the other tiny villages in the vicinity of Taylor have things that bind them to existence.” “Taylor requires that, as well.”

***

It is possible that Taylor is the “Home of the Taylor Juniper,” as the welcome signs now proclaim, but nowhere has it been afforded a larger status than in Lincoln, which is located 150 miles to the east. There, the trees now bedeck – possibly even complete – the capitol grounds. They watch over the entrance in the east. They are keeping watch in the direction of the south. And on the western side, you’ll see them clustered around the Lincoln Monument, almost as if they’re pining for a closer look at the president at his most trying times.

Bob Ripley, the administrator of the Capitol, says, “Call me some time,” as if he has been waiting for this moment for a very long time, as if finally someone has asked. Because, according to what he says, if these trees could communicate, they’d tell a story about fate.

In 1920, when the architect Bertram Goodhue was asked to submit his design for the Nebraska Capitol Building, he incorporated a number of towering conifers to serve as an accent to the 15-story limestone tower in his design.

Ripley identifies them as monstrous in the conversation. “If the trees in the drawing had been actual, their scale would have been fifty or sixty feet in height. They would have been wider and taller than even the greatest Italian Cypress that I have ever seen.”

Goodhue passed away barely two years into the construction of the Capitol, but the Capitol Commission engaged the state’s first landscape architect to implement his vision for the grounds, which had not yet been accomplished. Ernst Herminghaus, a native of Lincoln, devised a new master design in a little less than two months, speedily replacing the tall imported trees that Goodhue had planted with the far more resilient eastern redcedar. Herminghaus methodically clipped the branches in order to direct their growth in an upright direction.

Ripley notes that back then “the problem was that we did not have the trained gardeners that we have now in order to continuously prune those trees.”

After a period of five years, the commission decided to remove them. After nearly half a century had passed, the commission decided to experiment with Woodward Junipers, a novel tree kind that originated in Oklahoma. They started off with a fantastic appearance but eventually lost their needles and died. But, “lo and behold,” Ripley continues as he races along, around about that time the statewide arboretum began pushing an upright juniper that was discovered by a curious plantsman puttering through the Sandhills. This juniper was similar to an Italian cypress.

“It couldn’t be better. It couldn’t have been any better. If Herminghaus were still living today, he would probably sit down, shake his head, and remark something along the lines of “I can’t believe this actually occurred.” This is the same tree that I pruned about eighty years ago, but it now grows on its own.’ I can only imagine how shocked he would be.

***

Despite the fact that it is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in crowded metropolitan areas, the backstory of the Taylor Juniper is far from being finished. It’s possible Wilke was the one who found it. It’s possible that Britton was the owner. It’s possible that Cross was the one who grafted it, and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum was the one who made it popular. However, the question “Is it nature’s aberration or His Divine Creation?” was posed by an adamant resident of Loup County many years ago in a letter to the editor.

The eastern redcedar, which is actually a type of juniper, was confined to riverbanks and rocky outcrops for thousands of years as a result of the frequent and widespread wildfires that raged throughout the Great Plains. After then, white colonists arrived. In the words of novelist Bess Streeter Aldrich, “the fear of it forever branded in the minds of the settlers,” the settlers built homes and planted crops, and with so much now to protect, they viewed wildfire as one more enemy to vanquish. With so much now to protect, they viewed wildfire as one more enemy to vanquish.

Because it was no longer being kept in check, the eastern redcedar continued to extend its scraggly limbs further onto the open prairie year after year, decade after decade, until it had engulfed meadows and forced songbirds to find new homes. A growing number of ecologists believe that the so-called “Green Glacier” poses the greatest danger to the preservation of rangelands. There is no trace of prairie left in a significant portion of the land that once surrounded Taylor.

In the middle of the long march of the cedar, nature gave a little hiccup. The slopes suddenly began to be colonized by trees with unusually straight trunks. In point of fact, when Wilke first went to knock on Britton’s door, the rancher was aware of numerous more growing wild in the surrounding area. Today, ecotourists can use the backroads between Taylor and Sargent, which are located nine miles to the south, and see scores of them pricking the horizon, as if they were pruned by the great Herminghaus himself.

However, researchers have not yet mapped the genome of the eastern redcedar; hence, there is no effective way to compare their DNA or locate the gene in question. The question that has to be answered is whether every Taylor-esque juniper is in some way the result of a novel mutation, or whether they are merely the children of an unknown arboreal pioneer, a process that geneticists refer to as “migration.” The rumors are rampant inside the town of Taylor. Some people say it was nuclear drift from the Manhattan Project, some say it was radiation from an ancient meteor impact, and others still say it was an odd bolt of lightning.

Loren Sandoz, who has worked at Loup County High School for the past 30 years until retiring recently, brushes all of them off.

While sitting at a modest picnic table in the middle of the plaza, he murmurs, “I don’t buy it.”

Experiments with these enigmatic trees were performed in his environmental science class many years ago. Because they lacked a proper greenhouse, the majority of their attempts to graft the uprights were unsuccessful. However, they also collected seeds for the sake of propagation. Loren removed 100 of the roughly 500 seeds that germinated and replanted them in containers holding one gallon of soil each. After three years, the majority of them, according to him, developed a scrappy and loose growth pattern, just like any other eastern redcedar. Some of them had a curiously columnar appearance. But just four of the hundred were able to properly replicate the mother tree’s erect posture.

“We may utilize the Occam’s Razor method,” says Donald Lee, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Even with these preliminary data in hand.”

In other words, the response that is the simplest to provide is most likely the correct one.

According to him, you should think of it as a random mutation. The gene that normally governs the form of the eastern redcedar did not adequately duplicate itself for some reason. This may have happened anywhere. However, unlike the majority of trees, the eastern redcedar has distinct genders. In order for the species to generate offspring, pollen from a male tree must fertilize a female seed cone. It was discovered by Loren’s students that inheriting this rogue gene from the mother is not sufficient to guarantee upright growth on its own. But what about receiving it as a gift from the father? Inquire of a redhead.

Lee says, “I love a good genetics narrative,” and I couldn’t agree more.

However, the conclusion is still up in the air. In the event that their slim build turns out to be useful in some way –

For example, if columnar junipers are able to outcompete their more scraggly contemporaries for sunlight, they may one day come to be regarded as the norm in Loup County.

Alternately, these abnormal genes could just disappear due to the randomness of the world, much like ships passing in the night.

But given how rapidly the “Green Glacier” is expanding close to Taylor, according to Lee, the upright form will most certainly continue to make up a relatively insignificant portion of the entire glacier.

Loren hopes so. Even now, he is unable to explain how he came to be known as the Taylor Juniper guy, and he makes no effort to do so. After spending an hour showing a reporter his favorite mutant junipers, he ambles past the high school in his ’98 Chevy with a plaid elbow slung carelessly out the window. He makes a point. He grins. He says, “This is one that I’ve always admired,” and he means it. Additionally, that one was found in the meadow. And that Taylor over there, beside the visitor center, has earned his certification. In addition, he notes that “there’s one we grafted.”

While he is remembering the fish that got away, an aluminum stepladder is rattling in the bed next to him.

“It started as a seed, and by the time it was three years old, it had become so compact and beautiful, and I hope…”

He looks both down the street and into the hills that are further away.

“And now I regret that I didn’t save it.”

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