George Washington slept under one. Lenape leaders met with New Jersey’s first governor under another. Barefoot country people put on shoes in the shade of another before entering the church. The famous New Jersey poet, Joyce Kilmer, was inspired by it. Another is named after the movie character Forrest Gump.
You guessed it – these are all great historic or significant trees in New Jersey!
Since the 1930s, New Jersey has maintained records of the tallest 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 state’s largest specimen trees.
Currently, the Big Tree list includes 569 entries: living giants whose impressive height, trunk girth, and crown spread are measured as part of a ranking system, as well as “emeritus” trees of historical importance which, alas, are no longer standing.
Prior to 2019, the state’s program focused primarily on locating “champion trees,” the tallest of each species in the state, and “national champions,” trees in New Jersey on the tallest list. trees of their kind in the country. But the list has recently opened up to other trees (called “signature trees”) that may not be the tallest of their kind but still deserve recognition.
The list includes many trees of exceptional historical value. “These trees have been around for hundreds of years, bearing witness to many national and local historical events, and are known as heritage trees or witness trees,” according to the Big Tree website. “These historic tree-lined landmarks are significant to New Jersey’s natural heritage and occupy all of New Jersey’s unique geographic regions. We can use these trees to tell stories of the past or preserve the memories we create today for our children.
Here are some of the most interesting tall trees in New Jersey:
George Washington Sycamore, Hope – On a sweltering hot day in July 1787, General Washington was driving 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 took a nap under the shady canopy of a sycamore tree. The famous tree still stands in front of the Swayze Inn Farm.
The Shoe Tree, Belvidere – According to local lore, two centuries ago country dwellers often walked barefoot, saving their precious shoes for cold weather and special occasions. Before Sunday services, they sat under a white oak tree and put on shoes before crossing the village square on their way to church. The Shoe Tree was nearly felled 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 camped a mile away at Middle Brook in 1778-1779.
Forrest Gump Tree, Hillsborough – Unlike opening a box of chocolates, you know what you’re getting when you visit Duke Farms. The former 2,740-acre Doris Duke Estate is now a model of environmental stewardship and attracts visitors from all over. “Forrest Gump” is a 300+ year old red oak located near the historic Carriage House. It’s in good company: Duke Farms is said to be home to four of the 10 oldest trees in New Jersey.
Kilmer Oak, New Brunswick – A massive white oak tree on the campus of Rutgers University is said to have inspired Joyce Kilmer to write her 1913 poem “Trees.” (“I think I shall never see, a poem as beautiful as a tree…”) Unfortunately, the great oak tree died and had to be felled in 1963. It appears 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 trunk after being mortally wounded by an English soldier, refusing to abandon his troops at Princeton. The whole community wept when the Mercer Oak fell in March 2000 into old age. Standing like a sentinel in the middle of the park, it was a landmark for all who passed or sat in its shadow.
The good news is that more trees are constantly being added to the list!
Last winter, a college professor’s trek through the village of Batsto in the Wharton State Forest in search of maple trees with syrup-mining potential ended with the discovery of a champion tree. Matthew Olson, an assistant professor at the University of Stockton, came across the giant oak tree while researching red maple trees for a university project. He came back with students to measure the tree.
Joseph Bennett, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) forester in charge of the Big Tree program, later confirmed to Olson and his students that the oak post is the largest of its kind in the New Jersey. “Trees of this size are mega resources and provide 600 times the environmental benefits of typical trees,” Bennett wrote.
To see the state’s Big Tree list, access the DEP interactive map at 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 the location of trees on a map of New Jersey, you can click on the “layers” feature to display a searchable table by species, height, county location and other variables.
Think you have a tree that might qualify for the Big Tree list? Most large trees in New Jersey are named by landowners who have a huge tree on their property. 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 NJ Forest Service staff member will review your application to determine its large tree rating and champion potential, and make an on-site visit to formally measure the tree.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s lands and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at [email protected]
Jay Watson is co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.