CRANFORD, NJ- Union County College said goodbye to the “son” of the Basking Ridge oak tree in a sunny, heartfelt ceremony held on campus on Tuesday morning before the tree was removed and replanted later on the grounds of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church in Basking Ridge.
The tree was nurtured and donated by Dr. Thomas M. Ombrello, a biology professor at UCC. Later in the day, it was planted on the opposite side of the church from the old white oak in Basking Ridge that died at the end of last summer following a lifespan of an estimated 600 years.
The centuries-old white oak resides at (and predated) the Presbyterian Church of Basking Ridge, and was determined to be dead last year. The oak tree's hometown is holding a countdown until the famous tree will be removed from the churchyard on Monday, April 24.
“It’s an important tree for us, but it’s way more important to the church. They’re going to honor the tree and continue the legacy of the original one," said Ombrello, who has tended a grove of trees that are the offspring of many historically significant trees from around the nation.
'Most majestic tree'
“It is the most majestic tree in the entire state,” Ombrello said.
In 1995, Ombrello decided to collect acorns from the grand tree in the hopes of creating a sapling that he could plant in his arbor, the Union County College Historic Tree grove. The grove, started by Ombrello, features the offspring of trees from Civil War battlefields and homes of historic figures that include Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Wright brothers and Martin Luther King.
“I wanted to collect offspring from trees that are important in U.S. history,” Ombrello said.
The Basking Ridge oak tree is believed to be one of the oldest trees in North America, with a claim that George Washington sat under its wide branches, said Nicole Torella, the manager of publications and communications at Union County College.
The oak tree didn’t significantly shed acorns until 2001, and when it did, Ombrello and a student collected two five-gallon buckets of acorns and tended to them in Ombrello’s greenhouse. The acorn that created the strongest, fastest sapling was planted in the tree grove, and has prospered there until April 11's ceremony, after it was transported to the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church to rest in a spot not far from its predecessor.
At Tuesday night's Bernards Township Committee meeting, Township Committeeman John Carpenter called the replanting of the tree a "spectacular" event. The tree was planted on the opposite side of the church - church officials said previously that the same location as the original tree wouldn't be the best spot for a new oak tree to thrive - but Carpenter said the tops of the old tree could be seen above the church roof as its offspring was finding a new place to root on church property.
The tree removal ceremony featured speakers honoring the original tree, including Victor M. Richel, chairman of the Board of Trustees at UCC, Bruce H. Bergen, chair of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Bill Emmitt, co-chair of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church Tree Committee, Bruce McArthur, the Bernards Township Administrator, and Ombrello. The ceremony was introduced and hosted by Dr. Margaret M. McMenamin, president of the college.
McArthur said on Tuesday night that he believes the "son" of the original oak is about 32 feet tall.
Original oak around at time of Christopher Columbus
“Christopher Colombus was doing his thing when the tree was a sapling,” Richel said of the original oak tree. “It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to believe all the history of this great country has taken place while this tree has grown.”
Other Basking Ridge oak progeny to be planted again at UCC
In his speech, Ombrello revealed that he has another sapling from the original tree in his nursery, which he intends to nurture and plant in the place of its sibling within the next two years.
“It was a great ceremony,” said Pablo Benavides, president of UCC’s student government association. “I’m glad that so many faculty and staff members attended and that I got to be here for this.”
According to Ombrello, it’s possible for the second-generation tree to last as long and grow as wide as its parent.
“It’s certainly possible,” Ombrello said, when asked if the original oak tree could become a grandparent. “But typically, that will be decades away. Oak trees don’t reproduce early in life.
- with Linda Sadlouskos