The oldest living survivor of America's Revolutionary War era is in critical condition.
Hurricane Floyd dealt a devastating blow to the historic Liberty Tree on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis, leaving it with a 5-inch-wide, 15-foot-long fracture in one of its central branches. College officials, in consultation with tree experts from around the world, are searching for ways to save the tree while reluctantly contemplating that it might be necessary to cut it down.
Two centuries ago, the ground under the tulip poplar's wide boughs was a favorite meeting place for disgruntled colonists seeking to incite rebellion against the British crown. Annapolis residents gathered around the tree on Sept. 27, 1775, to debate a resolution to expel all British sympathizers from the city. The proposition eventually was judged too extreme and was defeated by the assembled citizenry.
"This tree is a symbol of our national identity," Christopher Nelson, St. John's president, said earlier this week, pledging to spare no effort or expense to save the tree.
But college spokeswoman Barbara Goyette acknowledged that the tree's condition "is more serious than we originally thought." Tree experts say that the crack in the tree has widened a couple of inches in the two weeks since Floyd struck.
Nelson probably will decide the tree's fate early next week after reviewing a proposal from a structural engineer from Germany, who has told college officials that he thinks the tree can be saved.
Other local tree experts, however, have advised the college that the tree's condition is dire.
"It's really pretty sad," said Paul Foster of Bartlett Tree Experts, an Annapolis firm that has taken care of the tree for the past 50 years.
"The tree has been defying gravity and the natural processes for many years, so this is not unexpected," Foster said. Tulip poplars typically live 250 to 300 years, he said, and the Liberty Tree is estimated to be 394 years old.
He said that without the installation of supporting cables in the 1970s, the Liberty Tree probably would have toppled during the hurricane.
St. John's officials say that, as a temporary measure, they plan to heed Foster's recommendation that the top of the 96-foot-tall tree be drastically pruned. Foster said a "severe crown reduction" will take weight off the fractured main branches and reduce the chances of the tree falling on Pinckney Hall, a newly renovated dormitory that stands just 70 feet from the tree. The college already has fenced off a large area around the tree.
Nelson said that if the safety of St. John's students could not be ensured he would have no choice but to remove the tree.
The tree is the last of its kind. During the colonial era it was the Maryland capital's version of Boston's Liberty Tree, a large elm around which colonists began gathering in 1765 to protest British rule. As other colonies adopted their own trees as revolutionary meeting places, the British authorities chopped them down. Over the years, all of the original Liberty Trees, save the one in Annapolis, succumbed to age or weather.
In a ceremony in June, technicians from the University of Maryland took genetic material from the tree in an effort to clone it. The clones are to be given to other states as part of a celebration of the year 2000.
Gary Coleman, the plant physiologist in charge of the cloning effort, said his laboratory now has small shoots from the tree growing in a tissue culture.
"I'm hoping by mid-winter that we'll have enough material to try to root the shoots," he said.
But Coleman said he hoped Maryland's original Liberty Tree could be saved, just in case the clones do not survive.
CAPTION: As a safety precaution, the damaged Liberty Tree is fenced while officials decide its future.