Friday, June 6, 2014

A campus stroll through history, as told by trees

In three and a half years and over thousands of miles criss-crossing the state, we've seen a lot of notable trees. We've come upon ancient mighty oaks that witnessed the signing of treaties with the natives and the first American air mail (albeit by balloon), and a large but younger one that provided a customary place for country folks to don their shoes before walking into town. A massive holly spent most of its life in obscurity before becoming a force in changing the route of the Garden State Parkway. A host of famed trees of other species are mostly known for being really old and still alive. The message they all deliver is clear: despite rampant development, New Jersey communities somehow manage to preserve trees that have meaning to them.

What we didn't know was that we could have visited offspring of most of these trees, and more, in one place: the Union County College campus in Cranford. There, not far from the Sperry Observatory, is a grove of 70 trees that comprise the Historic Tree Project. Labeled with nameplates, they represent not only New Jersey but many other notable places around the country.

The New Brunswick white oak that's said
 to have inspired Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees
is represented by this healthy youngster.
A project of UCC biology professor Dr. Tom Ombrello, the Historic Tree Project started in 1997, intending to grow and nurture seedlings and saplings of trees that have some significance in American history. Several seeds or acorns from each historic tree are germinated in the adjacent greenhouse, with the goal of ultimately planting one in the grove. Spare seedlings are shared with other schools, parks and historic societies around the state, with the goal of preserving the parent tree's heritage (or, perhaps, sap-line).

Presidents are well represented, with offspring including George Washington's Mount Vernon holly, red maple and sweet buckeye trees, oaks from Abraham Lincoln's birthplace and resting grounds, and more from notable places in the lives of presidents Jefferson, Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, Truman and Johnson. Others celebrate groundbreaking African Americans including Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. Still more are the progeny of "witness" trees that may still stand at the site of historic events like the Battles of Gettysburg and Antietam, and the attack on the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001.

Over the years, some of the historic trees have been felled by storms or other natural occurrences. Raising plants in climates outside their normal environments can be tricky, making some especially susceptible to the harsh weather extremes we've experienced in New Jersey over the past several years. And, of course, there are the usual four-footed villains to guard against. One might wonder if an acorn from a pedigreed oak, however young, might be an especially tasty treat for an adventurous squirrel, or if the bark of a historic sycamore might be especially pleasing for a deer looking to rub his head.

The project is now focusing on trees representing New Jersey historic people, events and sites, including catalpa, magnolia and buckeye samples from nearby Liberty Hall. Grover Cleveland's birthplace is represented by descendants of the mighty sycamore and a red oak behind the Caldwell home, while a ginko tree reminds us of the Greenwich tea burning. The Pinelands also gets a shoutout with a pitch pine from the area near Tabernacle where Emilio Carranza, the "Lindbergh of Mexico" met his untimely end while flying a goodwill mission in 1928.

Like all living things, trees have a finite life. Even the sturdiest and most ancient eventually die on their own, making projects like these all the more important. Despite the best efforts of preservationists and arborists, we've already seen the passing of storied trees like the Mercer Oak and the New Brunswick Joyce Kilmer Oak, but not before acorns were collected and nurtured. With luck, 200 years or more from now, our own descendants will be able to relax under the boughs of these trees and consider their own links to the past, gain inspiration and do great things in their own lives.


  1. my dad Jim Shaw of the former Woodlawn tree Service in Cranford would have just loved this project! He put the Cranford Pepperage tree in the spotlight many years before his passing.

    1. Thanks for letting us know, Adele! Old Peppy has an offspring in the UCC grove - the project wouldn't be complete without one.


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