The Storytelling Trees of East Hampton

The clone of the tree that grew from a seed that went to the moon doesn’t look like much. It’s still a callow sapling, a flurry of bright green leaves on a spindly six-foot trunk. But in 20 years or so, this American sycamore will be a formidable presence at the Folly Tree Arboretum, an unusual collection of some 250 trees planted by Tucker Marder, a 33-year-old artist, on five acres of his family’s land in East Hampton, N.Y.

Arboretums, loosely defined, are public parks dedicated to a wide range of trees and shrubs. The word roughly translates from the Latin as “a place to grow trees,” and some arboretums are devoted to a single type, like conifers or fruit trees. This arboretum is devoted to stories — Mr. Marder describes it as a cultural archive of environmental storytelling and it’s as much an art project as a horticultural adventure — which means that each tree here has a narrative, a good yarn behind it.

Since trees can’t talk, Mr. Marder is their Boswell. (Tours are by appointment only.) Like Agnes Denes, the artist who in 1982 planted a field of wheat in Lower Manhattan as a sweet-scented retort to the doings on Wall Street, and Maya Lin, the architect who planted a stand of dead cedars in Madison Square Park in 2021 — as it happened, Mr. Marder lent a hand in that installation — Mr. Marder is making a work of environmental activism. Not that he would describe the Folly Tree 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 filled with narratives that might be a good thing.

“Anthropomorphism is often frowned on,” he continued, “but it is a way that people form meaningful relationships to nature. It’s not always a bad thing to say that tree looks goofy or that tree looks silly or that tree was in a movie or has a history. 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, the smoke from Canada’s wildfires, one of the many environmental disasters exacerbated by climate change, was beginning to darken the sky. Up the road, East Hampton’s native beech forest was showing signs of the disease that’s been slowly ravaging beech trees throughout the Northeast.

Still, Mr. Marder is no Cassandra. His own artwork, often involving performance and puppets, has a prankster’s spirit. Today, in his faded green work shirt, lime green pants, and sporting a bushy beard, he looked like a large elf. As we walked, guinea hens skittered 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 Creacion, an art collective, asked to turn the tractor into a puppet. It was all very festive.

We met a big leaf magnolia, which produces the largest flowers of any deciduous tree in North America. Its blooms, as big as my head, smelled like a warm Southern evening. It is an ancient species, having evolved 95 million years ago, long before bees existed. (It is pollinated by beetles, Mr. Marder explained.)

Walking through the Folly is a march 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 bristled with spiky green flowers that will soon grow into what are often called monkey brains, the knobbly neon green balls that all animals loathe — the fruit tastes awful — 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 died out about 10,000 years ago. The Osage orange’s curious back story means that 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 are long gone.”

This particular cultivar is called the Cannonball because its fruit is two-thirds bigger than the regular Osage oranges, which means that it’s two-thirds more useless, he added. The anachronism delights him. It’s one of his favorite trees in the arboretum.

“It’s the idea that it has no prescribed use, that the fruit leads this subversive existence where it rolls down hills and falls into parking lots where it can get squished by cars or kicked by kids,” he said. “We’ve been propagating the hell out of 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 delicate business, particularly if you practice graft propagation, as Mr. Marder often does, splicing his cuttings onto rootstocks. He also dabbles in topiary, having been inspired by the enchanting work of Pearl Fryar, a sharecropper’s son and a former factory worker in Bishopville, S.C., who turned his yard into a renowned sculpture garden by pruning castoff nursery shrubs into fantastical shapes.

We wandered past a shaggy spruce trained by Mr. Marder; it resembled a giant leafy critter, like a woolly mammoth. A quintet of Serbian spruces lurched and twisted, their branches miming the arboreal version of jazz hands. “I think they are the most charismatic conifers,” Mr. Marder said. Behind them, he had split a sycamore sapling in two, and was encouraging it to grow around a hoop-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 manure 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 had bought a storied estate called the Creeks.

Charlie helped Mr. Ossorio create what would become a world famous 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 Heller, the art collector, and then, inevitably, all the machers of the East End — and Martha Stewart — who could pay 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, “is taking horticulture to a whole new level.”

Mr. Marder finds his trees in all sorts of ways. Some he pursues; 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 about 460 B.C. It came to the United States in 1962, when the government of Greece gave a cutting to the National Institutes of Health, which planted it on its grounds. When the tree began to sicken, the N.I.H. asked David Milarch, the nursery man turned climate change evangelist, to make a clone or two before it died.

Mr. Milarch is a celebrity in tree circles. He has been cloning old-growth redwoods and other ancient trees and propagating them through his nonprofit, the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. His idea is that these elder trees are genetic superstars, and his project aims to reforest the land with them, an effort to save the planet from climate change. Mr. Milarch made a few clones of the Hippocrates tree for the N.I.H. and kept a few for his own archive. After Mr. Marder made a pilgrimage to see him, and made a short film about him, Mr. Milarch gifted him a clone, too.

“Tucker is the real deal,” Mr. Milarch said. “He is passionate about trees and the environment, and he puts his money where his mouth is, which he doesn’t open very often. He’s got miracles growing in his arboretum.”

“It’s a paradigm shift,” Mr. Milarch added, noting how his work dovetails with Mr. Marder’s. “We cloned George Washington’s tree. We cloned Thomas Jefferson’s at Monticello and Teddy Roosevelt’s on Sycamore Hill and when we were cloning these historic trees that had names, people flocked to that paradigm, because it gave the tree a name and a face. It gave it a life, and I think it’s a really neat way to have people that aren’t interested in trees to get them interested by creating that story.”

Here’s the tale behind that fledgling moon tree. On the Apollo 14 flight to the moon in 1971, one of the astronauts, Stuart Roosa, brought with him a canister of seeds — loblolly pine, sweet gum, redwood, Douglas fir and sycamore. Mr. Roosa had been a fire jumper, and the seeds’ journey was to both observe the effects of deep space on them and to raise awareness about 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 a few cuttings.

Taking a cutting does not harm a tree — it’s akin to snipping a lock of hair — nonetheless, there are times when Mr. Marder hasn’t made arrangements with whatever entity is in charge of a tree he’s after, 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 extended 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 confused for a vandal.”

Mr. Marder’s most recent mission was to nab a cutting from an Anne Frank tree, a descendant of the horse chestnut Anne could see from her window during her two years in hiding in Amsterdam. There are a few in the United States, donated by the Anne Frank Foundation. The original tree died in 2010, but the Foundation had already grown more than 100 saplings from its chestnuts.

This past winter Mr. Marder made his move — but after taking his cutting (he declined to say what city and location this particular tree was), he was swept up in a crowd pouring out of a sports event. It took him three hours to find his car, and when he did so, a policeman approached. Mr. Marder, anxious and exhausted, thought he was about to be reprimanded for his arboreal heist, but the cop just wanted to let him know he was parked illegally. Four months later, the cutting is slowly knitting itself onto a rootstock; it will be ready for planting in the fall, and in three years or so, will start to look like a proper tree.

Horse chestnuts grow relatively fast, Mr. Marder said, but when you work with trees, you have to take the long view.