SOUTH PLAINFIELD - South Plainfield will be one of 565 municipalities in New Jersey to receive a seedling from the iconic Salem White Oak that resided on West Broadway in the historic city of Salem, NJ. The majestic tree stood with regal beauty watching over Salem for 500 years until it suddenly crashed to the ground on June 6, 2019. Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said the seedlings are gifts to each community in New Jersey to celebrate the 50th Birthday of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.
"Just before the tree died, NJDEP collected acorns, and they grew over a thousand trees," said Dorothy Miele, Chairman of the South Plainfield Historical Society and Environmental Commission. "They came up with the idea of spreading that bounty of history to all New Jersey communities."
“It is with great joy that we extend these oak branches to all of you so that all of us - together - can create a lovely, lasting legacy,” McCabe said via video at a November 2019 press conference. “Fifty years from now, people will know that our shared commitment to protecting and respecting our environment ran as deep as the roots of the mighty Salem Oak.”
The South Plainfield Historical Society, along with the South Plainfield Environmental Commission and Department of Recreation, plan to plant the seedling near the South Plainfield Community Pool. In the 1700s, the Community Pool was a Quaker Meeting House, and served as a place of worship where the early colonials could gather as a community for prayer.
"The area of our South Plainfield Community pool, which is currently under renovation, served at one time as a location for a Quaker Meeting House, so it holds historical significance," said Councilwoman Christine Faustini, Council Recreation Department Liaison. "Much thought and care will be given to its planting and placement to ensure it has a position of respect and prominence as well as the best place for healthy growth."
Members of the South Plainfield Historical Society met on March 10 at the town's History Center, located at Highland Woods Nature Reserve, 115 Sylvania Place, to discuss plans for dedicating the seedling.
"In our particular case, we're going to plant the seedling in a ceremony at our Community Pool because we have a direct tie in with all the history that this tree represents," said Miele. "South Plainfield was founded by Quakers. We're planting the seedling on the spot where the Quaker Meeting House was in 1732 until 1788, so the tie in of planting the tree near the Community Pool was just beautiful."
Once located in the Salem Friends Burial Ground, the Salem Oak from which the seedling came, was one of New Jersey's most famous and celebrated trees. At more than 100 feet tall with a truck circumference of approximately 22 feet and a crown spanning 104 feet, the great tree was among the largest white oaks in the state. Most white oaks live 200 or 300 years, however, the Salem Oak lived over 500 years.
"The Salem Oak was the last remaining tree from a massive forest that existed when John Fenwick, a Quaker from Scotland, founded the area," said Miele. "Fenwick was a friend of John Barclay, owner of the land, and later sold it to John Laing, who called this Plainfield Plantation. That's where the name of our town is derived from."
The tree had significant historical significance as it was the only surviving tree from the original forest that existed when the Founder of Salem, Quaker John Fenwick, first arrived in 1675. Legend has it that Fenwick met with Lenni Lenape Native Americans and signed a peace treaty under the Salem Oak.
Fortunately, in the Spring of 2019, foresters in the NJDEP Forest Service’s Big and Heritage Tree Conservation program collected acorns that had fallen at the base of the Salem Oak. At the time, there was no indication the tree would die just months later.
The acorns were planted and nurtured in the greenhouse at the New Jersey Forest Service Nursery in Jackson Township. Nearly 1,200 seedlings sprouted and were transferred into tubes. Although small, they are mighty. The seedlings are on are their way to one day matching the noble stature of their great Salem predecessor.
"I think it's wonderful that South Plainfield will have such a part of history in town," said Tom Elridge, Secretary of the South Plainfield Historical Society. "It's just such a great idea. The seedling came from a 500-year-old tree at another Quaker Meeting House in South Jersey. I just think it's so appropriate for one of the oldest settled spots in South Plainfield to be the home of the seedling."
In order to mark the NJDEP’s 50th Birthday on April 22 and the 50th Anniversary of America’s first Earth Day, the seedlings will soon be carefully packaged and shipped to each of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities for planting in a location that would ensure that each one thrives. This will also coincide with Arbor Day on April 24, a day when the conditions for planting is ideal. The public will also be given an opportunity to purchase these seedlings.
The distribution and planting of seedlings throughout New Jersey also represents an important bridge connecting the Salem Oak’s past with the future of the state by helping to reduce the effects of climate change. Trees remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. CO2 emission can be harmful to the environment as it inhibits radiation from escaping the atmosphere, resulting in temperature rise. Trees produce oxygen, intercept airborne particulates, enhance respiratory health and reduce stress by improving quality of life. And heritage trees, such as the Salem Oak reap 600 times the amount of environmental benefits than other types of trees because of their long life span and tremendous growth.
NJDEP foresters estimate that over 50 years, these 565 trees will absorb about 2.1 million pounds of carbon dioxide and conserve 1.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity. This is the equivalent of 143 years of electricity for one household. It is projected that the trees have the potential to intercept approximately 27.1 million gallons of storm water, preventing flooding. So, there are many more environmental benefits to planting the Salem Oak seedlings aside from their illustrious beauty and historical significance.
"I was very happy to learn that South Plainfield will become home to such a celebrated and historic symbol," Faustini said. "Hopefully we can have the Oak Tree planted in correlation with our 50th Anniversary celebrations of Earth Day. Thanks to all who helped make this happen."
"When this all comes to fruition and the seedling gets planted, the residents of South Plainfield will have a more historical connection to the past through the tree," said Miele. "All that history will be shared with the residents, and they can see the value the tree embodies. It's just a wonderful connection to our past."