By Jay Watson
George Washington slept under one. Lenape chiefs met with New Jersey’s first governor under another. Barefoot country folk pulled on shoes in the shade of yet another before entering church. Famous New Jersey poet Joyce Kilmer was inspired by one. Another is named after movie character Forrest Gump.
You guessed it – they are all large, historic or significant trees in New Jersey.
Since the 1930s, New Jersey has kept records of the largest trees within its borders through the Big Tree Conservation Program, formerly known as the Champion Tree Program.
The New Jersey Forest Service maintains the “Big Tree list,” an online inventory of the largest tree specimens in the state.
Currently, the Big Tree list includes 569 entries: living giants whose impressive height, trunk circumference and crown spread are measured as part of a ranking system, plus “emeritus” trees of historic significance which, alas, are no longer standing.
Prior to 2019, the state’s program mainly focused on locating “Champion Trees,” the largest of each species in the state, and “National Champions,” New Jersey trees on the list of the largest trees of their species in the country.
But the list has recently opened up to additional trees (known as “Signature Trees”) that may not be the very biggest of their species, but are still worthy of recognition.
The list includes many trees with outstanding historic value.
“These trees have been around for hundreds of years, witnessing many state and local historic events, and are known as Heritage Trees or Witness Trees,” according to the Big Tree website. “These historic tree monuments are important to New Jersey’s natural heritage and occupy all unique geographic regions found in New Jersey. We can use these trees to tell stories of the past or preserve the memories we make today for our children.”
Here are a few of New Jersey’s most interesting big trees:
• George Washington Sycamore, Hope – On a sweltering hot day in July 1787, General Washington was traveling through New Jersey and stopped in the town of Hope to see the Moravian mills. Needing a break from the heat, Washington dismounted from his horse and napped beneath the shading canopy of a sycamore. The famous tree still stands in front of the Swayze Inn Farm.
• The Shoe Tree, Belvidere – According to local lore, country residents two centuries ago often walked barefoot, saving their precious shoes for cold weather and special occasions. Prior to Sunday worship services, they sat beneath a white oak tree and pulled on shoes before crossing the village green to go to church. The Shoe Tree was almost chopped down for a road project, but a public outcry saved it.
• Council Oak, Bound Brook – This white oak was already about 80 feet tall on May 4, 1681, when two Lenape chiefs sold the 5,000 acres on which Bound Brook now stands to East Jersey governor Phillip Carteret and seven other men. Later, the tree served as a landmark during the American Revolution when Washington and his troops were camped a mile away at Middle Brook in 1778-79.
• Forrest Gump Tree, Hillsborough – Unlike opening a box of chocolates, you know what you are getting when you visit Duke Farms. The 2,740-acre former Doris Duke estate now is a model of environmental stewardship and attracts visitors from far and wide. “Forrest Gump” is a 300-plus-year-old red oak tree near the historic Carriage House. It is in good company: Duke Farms is believed to be home to four of the 10 oldest trees in New Jersey.
• Kilmer Oak, New Brunswick – An enormous white oak tree on the campus of Rutgers University is said to have inspired Joyce Kilmer to write his 1913 poem “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree …”). Sadly, the great oak died and had to be cut down in 1963. It is on the “emeritus” list of significant trees.
• Mercer Oak, Princeton – According to legend, brigadier general Hugh Mercer of the Continental Army rested on this large white oak’s trunk after being mortally wounded by an English soldier, refusing to abandon his troops at Princeton. The entire community mourned when the Mercer Oak fell in March 2000 to old age. Standing as sentry in the middle of the park, it was a landmark for all who passed by or sat in its shade.
The good news is that additional trees are added to the list all the time.
This past winter, a college professor’s trek through Batsto Village in Wharton State Forest in search of maple trees with syrup tapping potential ended in the discovery of a champion tree.
Matthew Olson, an assistant professor at Stockton University, came upon the giant post oak tree while scouting out red maples for a college project. He returned with students to measure the tree.
Joseph Bennett, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection forester in charge of the Big Tree program, later confirmed to Olson and his students that the post oak is the largest of its kind in New Jersey.
“Trees of this size are mega resources and perform 600 times the environmental benefits of typical trees,” Bennett wrote.
To see the state’s Big Tree list, go to https://www.nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/forest/bigtrees/treesofinterest.html?utm_campaign=20220513_nwsltr&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery
In addition to being able to see tree locations on a New Jersey map, you can click on the “layers” function to bring up a table that is searchable by species, height, county location and other variables.
Think you have a tree that might qualify for the Big Tree list? Most New Jersey big trees are nominated by property owners who have a huge tree on their land.
To nominate a tree, go to the Big Tree website at www.nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/forest/bigtrees/nominate.html and download a nomination form.
A forester or other New Jersey Forest Service staff member will review your nomination to determine its big tree ranking and champion potential, and will conduct a site visit to officially measure the tree.
Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.