The Disruptors: David Milarch | PITH + VIGOR by Rochelle Greayer

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The Disruptors: David Milarch

David Milarch - The man who planted trees

Meet David Milarch

David Milarch is a fourth generation German shade tree farmer who lives in Michigan with two subsequent generations (his two sons and their children) coming up behind him.

In 1991, David had a near-death experience that changed the trajectory of his life’s work. After suffering kidney and liver failure he describes his consciousness leaving him, but then returning after passing through a brilliant white light. While on the other side of the light, he was told his work wasn’t done and he needed to go back.

Following that, a couple months later, he had a second remarkable experience where he describes getting up in the middle of the night and writing a ten-page outline for what is now the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. He remembers none of it and explains that the outline was written in a form and style unfamiliar to him – the result, he believes, of being the vessel through which a message was passed. The message – via an angel – directed him to clone the champion tree of every species and then replant them far and wide. That mission has since been his life’s passion.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Project

The Archangel Ancient Tree project is a non-profit environmental group whose mission is to capture, clone and replant the genetics of ancient trees in order to save arboriculture.

Milarch is a classic disruptor with a sense of urgency and a disagreeable (in the best possible way) attitude. He also has the ability to re-frame the problem of climate change and imagine a path forward where we can reverse the effects by planting enough of the right kind of trees. He is the subject of a 2012 book by New York Times journalist Jim Robbins called “The Man Who Planted Trees, A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees and a Plan to Save the Planet.” There have been other stories in journals, magazines and newspapers written about Milarch, as he has travelled the world to find and clone the largest and oldest trees of every species. He has given TED talks, presentations to NASA, and I discovered his message at my own regional New England Grows. The movie rights to his life have been sold and Hollywood fundraising is in progress.

To speak with Milarch is to listen to a passionate man whose vision is singular and clear – clean up the planet’s air and water and reverse the effects of climate change, by cloning the world’s biggest, oldest trees.

cloning ancient trees with david milarch

Saving the Trees – Why Ancient Trees?

Deforestation has rapidly decimated old-growth forests and it mostly happened before scientists had time to study the genomes and the ecology of the longest living species – ancient trees.

Prior to industrialization, a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi in the branches of a great forest full of white pine, oak, hemlock and others species without touching ground. The oldest of those trees were, and are, hundreds and, perhaps, even thousands of years old and have proved to have resiliency to years of weather and environmental challenges. They are the survivors and pose the best chance at having the genetics and epigenetics (trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off) that allow them to thrive in our current and future climate. Additionally, large long-lived trees, by their sheer size and mass provide the best mechanisms for cleaning our air and water and sequestering carbon.

It is estimated that 98 percent of our original North American forests have been destroyed and most of the remaining 2 percent are not protected. Scientists and climate change experts agree that restoring natural systems that keep our earth healthy is the only way to actually reverse (not just halt) climate change. Cloning our oldest and largest trees is a good idea if we are to step away from the precipice of monocultures that we heavily rely on today for our food plants and our gardens.

There is a vast amount of undiscovered science and ecology that takes place in tree canopies and the roots of great forests. In order to understand what we do not know, we have to study what we have left and save what we can.

Until the mid-nineties, cloning projects of old sequoias had not been successful and the prevailing belief in the scientific community was that the older the tree became, the less likely it would be to create a successful clone. David Milarch likens the challenge to a 100-year-old woman trying to get pregnant and carry a full-term healthy baby.

Armed with sheer determination and having no sense of a ‘can’t do’ attitude, David Milarch has experimented with and employed a variety of techniques to coax genetically identical saplings from some of the oldest trees on the planet. He is archiving and replanting these trees and ensuring their genetics cross-pollinate with our existing trees and live on within the newest trees in our ecosystem.


“The Man Who Planted Trees, A Story of Lost Groves, the Science of Trees and a Plan to Save the Planet” by Jim Robbins


David Milarch, TED Talk and Moving the Giants


Scientists have calculated that if every person alive today planted two trees per year, every year, specifically, long-living large native shade trees, then climate change would be reversed in 20 years.


The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is a non-profit which is constantly in need of resources. To learn more and help support the organization visit


The Disruptors: Debra Prinzing

In the Garden With: Margaret Roach

How To Place and Plant Trees


In the mind of a disruptor, no field of study, no design, no science, no company and no accepted rule is too sacred to question, improve upon or maybe, even, blow-up. Disruptors in any industry are the people whose ideas change how we think and who are unafraid of taking a sharp left turn – when everyone else goes right – in order to redefine the way we live. In the world of horticulture, floristry, botany, arboriculture and all the related professions that comprise the world of gardening, there are some tremendous stories of innovation and transformation that might some day change the way we see and interact with the natural world. This new series will introduce you to the people who are leading the way.

As I brainstormed this series and thought about what kind of person qualifies as a disruptor, and who and how to measure a candidate for future features, a few things stood out. Disruptors are not just innovators or optimizers, they are people who look at problems and solve them outside of an existing framework, who think bigger than just taking the next logical step and whose passion drives them to revolutionize our thinking. As I considered whom to feature first, there was one clear choice.  This story first appeared in the print pages of P+V in 2016.

A Life Line Of David Milarch & The Archangel Ancient Tree Project


Weeding in the Milarch family shade tree farm and nursery at 10 years old.


Married Kerry Milarch and built a log cabin home on family land in Copemish, MI.


Near-death experience and vision to create tree archive


Jared Milarch (David’s son, age 12) collected the first big tree DNA


First major cloning of a champion tree – The Buckley Elm. Collected by David and Jared Milarch and propagated by Schmidt’s Wholesale Tree Growers in Oregon.


Successful cloning of the Buckley Elm leads to the first major press coverage about Milarch’s tree cloning.

Milarch meets Terry Mock a nurseryman and advocate for native plants and trees in South Florida.


With the help of Terry Mock, The Champion Tree Project (later known as the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive) receives funding from the National Tree Trust.


The original Buckley Elm died of Dutch Elm disease. The Milarchs, with the assistance of Dow Botanical Garden, re-planted clones of the Buckley Elm.

After planting Red Ash trees at the request of Senator Carl Levin at a 9/11 memorial site at the Pentagon, Milarch was informed that the National Tree Trust was being dismantled and his funding would end a year prematurely.


Jared Milarch and his team attempted to clone a 4800 year-old Methusula, a bristlecone pine and the oldest known tree in the world. The clones didn’t take, but seeds gathered at the same time were successfully grown. Bristlecone pine (like many trees) self-pollinate so there remains a chance of a 100 percent genetic match.


After years of a persistent lack of reliable financial support, the Champion Tree project secured backing from a patron that would allow Milarch to stop searching for funds and instead dedicate resources to building facilities and expanding propagation and collection operations.


Black mold know as mucor infected the propagation warehouse and 16,000 seedlings were lost.


With the help of Diana Beresford-Kroeger (an Irish born botanist, medical biochemist and author of “Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest” and other books) the Champion Tree project establishes a list of the first 100 trees from the global forest to be cloned—each of these trees identified as the most important to the ecosystem and life and necessary in case of climate catastrophe.


Milarch’s team cloned and propagated a 3000-year-old sequoia known as The Waterfall Tree.


Jim Robbins book about David Milarch, “The Man Who Planted Trees” was published by Speigel & Gau, a division of Random House, but due to a lack of funding at the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, Milarch and his sons were laid off and the staff of 18 was reduced to just a few people. Later in the year, however, an anonymous donor gave Archangel enough money to keep the organization afloat for at least another year.


The Eden Project in Cornwall, England, lead by Tim Smit, began planning with Archangel to plant old-growth redwoods from the Fieldbrook stump in England as well as another ancient forest restoration project Ireland.


The champion of each of the 826 tree species in the United States is being cloned. And Archangel begins working with five new countries in an effort to clone, plant and help set up facilities to continue saving tree genetics around the world.

-Going Forward

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive continues to operate as best it can with the resources at hand. Milarch estimates that they have about 30 percent of the funding they need at any given time, but they continue to find ways to advance projects worldwide. Additionally, the movie rights to David Milarch’s story have been sold and fundraising for a feature length movie about his life and the Archangel Ancient Tree Project is underway.

David Milarch - The man who planted trees photo by Don McCullough

Images: Don McCullough and Sara Hoover / Interlochen Public Radio

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