The clone of the tree that grew from a seed that went to the moon doesn’t look like much. It is still a bald sapling, a flurry of bright green leaves on a skinny six-foot trunk. But in about 20 years this American sycamore will be a formidable presence at the Folly Tree Arboretuman 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, NY.
Arboretums, loosely defined, are public parks dedicated to a wide range of trees and shrubs. The word roughly translates from Latin as “a place to grow trees”, and some arboretums are dedicated to a single type, such as conifers or fruit trees. This grove is dedicated to stories — Mr. Marder describes it as a cultural archive of environmental storytelling and it is as much an artistic project as a horticultural adventure — which means that every tree here has a story, a good thread behind it.
Since trees cannot speak, Mr. Marder is their Boswell. (Tours are by appointment only.) Like Agnes Denes, the artist who in 1982 planted a wheat field in Lower Manhattan as a sweet-smelling reply to the actions on Wall Street, and Maya Lin, the architect who planted a stand of the dead. cedars in Madison Square Park in 2021 – as it happened, Mr. Marder had a hand in that installation – Mr. Marder is doing a job of environmental activism. Not that he would describe the Folly Arboretum that way.
“It sounds cliché to say that storytelling is important,” he said, “but stories capture people’s imaginations, and if you could have a wood full of stories, that could be a good thing.
“Anthropomorphism is often unsuccessful,” he continued, “but it’s a way that people form meaningful relationships to nature. It’s not always a bad thing to say that tree looks silly or that tree looks stupid or that tree was in a movie or has a story . Those are valid relationships.”
Because if people felt more connected to nature, he suggested, they might not be so cavalier about it.
On a chilly afternoon in June, smoke from Canada’s wildfires, one of the many environmental disasters exacerbated by climate change, began to darken the sky. Along the way, East Hampton’s native beech forest showed signs of the disease that was slowly destroying beech trees throughout the Northeast.
However, Mr. Marder is no Cassandra. His own work of art, often involving performance and puppets, has the spirit of a prankster. Today, in his faded green work shirt, lime green pants, and bushy beard, he looked like a big elf. As we walked, guinea hens glided through the trees, their blue and red heads bobbing. A rusty tractor was brightly painted with teeth and eyes and squiggles; the Folly has a residency program for artists, and last year Poncili Creation, an art collective, asked to turn the tractor into a puppet. Everything was very festive.
We encountered a large leaf magnolia that produces the largest flowers of any deciduous tree in North America. Its flowers, as big as my head, smelled like a warm Southern evening. It is an ancient species, developed 95 million years ago, long before bees existed. (It is pollinated by beetles, Mr. Marder explained.)
A walk through the Folly is a walk through time. Some of its stories are older than humans – Homo sapiens are relative youngsters in the world’s timeline, having entered the evolutionary picture less than half a million years ago. Nearby, a teenage Osage orange has hardened with spiky green flowers that will soon grow into what is often called monkey brain, the knobbly neon green lumps that all animals loathe—the fruit tastes terrible—and some say is kryptonite to cockroaches (it’s not).
Osage oranges evolved in tandem with the giant ground sloths that roamed the earth some 80 million years ago and considered its fruit a delicacy; the sloths became extinct about 10,000 years ago. The curious backstory of the Osage orange means the fruit is useless from an evolutionary standpoint, Mr. Marder said, “because the animals they were designed for, the animals that ate them and then pooped them out to spread their seeds have been around for a long time disappeared.”
This particular cultivar is called Cannonball because its fruit is two-thirds larger than regular Osage oranges, which means it’s two-thirds more useless, he added. The anachronism makes him happy. It is one of his favorite trees in the arboretum.
“It’s the idea that it doesn’t have a prescribed use, that the fruit leads this subversive existence where it rolls down hills and falls into parking lots, where it can be run over by cars or kicked by kids,” he said. “We propagated them to make an army of Osage oranges to incorporate into landscape designs and art installations.”
Mr. Marder grows his trees from cuttings, a method otherwise known as cloning, which means the new plant is genetically identical to its parent. It can be a tricky business, especially if you practice graft propagation, as Mr. Marder often does, splicing his cuttings onto rootstocks. He is also involved in topiary, having been inspired by the enchanting work of Pearl Fryarthe son of a waterman and former factory worker in Bishopville, SC, who turned his backyard into a famous sculpture garden by pruning discarded nursery shrubs into stunning shapes.
We wandered past a shaggy spruce trained by Mr. Marder; it resembled a gigantic leafy animal, like a woolly mammoth. A quintet of Serbian spruces swayed and twisted, their branches imitating the forest’s version of jazz hands. “I think they are the most charismatic conifers,” Mr. Marder said. Behind them, he split a sycamore sapling in two, and encouraged it to grow around a ring-shaped armature, a project he was very excited about.
“A tree with a hole in it!” he said. “We can jump poodles through it.”
Mr. Marder grew up on this property, which his grandparents bought in the 1950s. His parents, Kathleen and Charlie Marder, met in art school and returned to East Hampton in their early 20s. Charlie Marder sold firewood and fertilizer to pay the bills and in the mid-70s began working with Alfonso Ossorio, an eccentric artist and friend of the painters Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock who bought a beech estate called the Creek.
Charlie helped Mr. Ossorio create what would become a world-renowned collection of rare plants and conifers. Charlie had a talent for trees, and before long he was the go-to guy for other wealthy tree collectors, like Ben Hellerthe art collector, and then, inevitably, all the East End machos – and Martha Stewart – who could afford to procure mature trees and move them around like garden ornaments.
Marders, the nursery and garden center Kathleen and Charlie opened in Bridgehampton in the early ’80s, is like a horticultural MoMA, with exquisitely curated plants and mature trees. Locals describe Charlie as the tree whisperer for his deep knowledge. But Tucker, Charlie said in a phone interview, “takes horticulture to a whole new level.”
Mr. Marder finds his trees in all sorts of ways. Some he persecutes; others are gifts, like the clone of the clone of the sycamore that grew on the Greek island of Cos under which Hippocrates taught medicine in approximately 460 BC It came to the United States in 1962, when the government of Greece gave a cut to the National Institutes of Health, which planted it on its grounds. When the tree started to get sick, the NIH asked David Milarch, the nurseryman turned climate change evangelist, to make a clone or two before it died.
Mr. Milarch is a celebrity in tree circles. He cloned old-growth redwood trees and other ancient trees and propagated them through his non-profit, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. His idea is that these elder trees are genetic superstars, and his project aims to reforest the earth with them, an effort to save the planet from climate change. Mr. Milarch made some clones of the Hippocratic tree for the NIH and kept some for his own archive. After Mr. Marder made a pilgrimage to see him, and made a short film about him, Mr. Milarch also presented him with a clone.
“Tucker is the real deal,” Mr. Milarch said. “He’s passionate about trees and the environment, and he puts his money where his mouth is, which he doesn’t open very often. He has miracles growing in his grove.”
“It’s a paradigm shift,” Mr. Milarch added, noting how his work aligns with Mr. Marder’s. “We cloned George Washington’s tree. We cloned Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and Teddy Roosevelt on Sycamore Hill and when we cloned these historic trees that had names, people flocked to that paradigm because it gave the tree a name and a face. It gave it life, and I think it’s a really neat way to get people who aren’t interested in trees to get them interested by creating that story.”
This is the story behind that young moon tree. During the Apollo 14 flight to the moon in 1971, one of the astronauts, Stuart Roosa, carried a can of seeds with him – loblolly pine, sweet gum, redwood, Douglas fir and sycamore. Mr. Roosa was a fire jumper, and the seeds’ journey was both to observe the effects of deep space on them and to raise awareness of the Forest Service. Back on earth, the seeds were germinated, grown into saplings and donated to various institutions, including an elementary school in Pennsylvania. Mr. Marder drove to the school a few years ago, and (when no one was looking) took some slices.
Taking a cutting does not harm a tree – it is like cutting a lock of hair – however, there are times when Mr. Marder has not made arrangements with any entity responsible for a tree he is looking for, so he will proceed with caution. . He often wears a bright yellow utility vest to make him look more official. “Sometimes I just sit in front of the tree in my car for long periods of time,” he said. “It can be scary, depending on the politics of the place or the tree. You don’t want to be mistaken for a vandal.”
Mr. Marder’s most recent mission was to capture a cutout Anne Frank’s tree, a descendant of the horse chestnut Anne could see from her window during her two years in hiding in Amsterdam. There are some in the United States, donated by the Anne Frank Foundation. The original tree died in 2010, but the Foundation has already grown more than 100 saplings from its chestnuts.
This past winter Mr Marder made his move – but after taking his cut (he declined to say what city and location this particular tree was), he was swept up in a crowd pouring out of a sporting event. It took him three hours to find his car, and when he did, a police officer approached. Mr. Marder, anxious and exhausted, thought he was to be reprimanded for his forest theft, but the policeman only wanted to inform him that he was parked illegally. Four months later, the cutting slowly knits itself onto a root; it will be ready to plant in the fall, and after three years, it will begin to look like a proper tree.
Horse chestnuts grow relatively quickly, Mr. Marder said, but when working with trees, you have to take the long view.