CRANFORD, NJ — Union County College said goodbye to the “son” of the Basking Ridge oak tree in a sunny, heartfelt ceremony held on campus this morning.
The Basking Ridge oak tree, believed to be one of the oldest trees in North America, is estimated to be at least 600 years old, with a claim that George Washington sat under its wide branches, according to Nicole Torella, the manager of publications and communications at Union County College. It resides at the Presbyterian Church of Basking Ridge, and was determined to be dead last year. The famous tree will be removed from the church on Monday, April 24.
“It is the most majestic tree in the entire state,” Dr. Thomas M. Ombrello, a biology professor at UCC, 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 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 today, when it will be transported to the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church to rest in a spot near its predecessor.
“It’s an important tree for us, but it’s way more important to the church,” Ombrello said. “They’re going to honor the tree and continue the legacy of the original one.”
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.
“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.”
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.”