N.J. white oak - one of the oldest in the county - reportedly may be dying

Even before there was a Basking Ridge, NJ, there was the oak tree.

George Washington picnicked in its shade. Gen. Jean Baptist de Rochambeau and allied French troops marched past it on the way to the Battle of Yorktown, Va. Thirty five Revolutionary War veterans are buried beneath its branches.

Now Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church officials are worried their white oak, which has withstood more than 600 years of storms and droughts, may be dying and they don't know why, the Washington Post reported.

The church - on One East Oak Street in the Somerset County village - was built beside the tree in the 1700s.

The 100 foot tall white oak has a spread of 156 feet with a 20 foot circumference of the trunk, according to the church website.

“We had great hopes,” Pastor Dennis Jones told the Post. “All eyes were on the tree to see how it would green.”

When it didn’t last month, when even more of its upper branches stayed bare, other experts were consulted. They tested the soil, probed the tree’s roots, checked for beetles and disease. Jason Grabosky, an ecologist at Rutgers University, inspected the tree in mid-June and declared it to be “in a spiral of decline.”

Although Grabosky gave no timeline, residents are suddenly preparing for the worst. Many talk about the tree’s demise as they would a family member’s. “It’s about knowing when to let go,” Jones told the Post.

Salem Friends Meeting in deep South Jersey knows the effort it takes to keep a tree that old alive.

Like the Basking Ridge church, they have used cables to support heavy limbs of their 600-plus-year-old oak. They also pruned it in a special way that helps the limbs to grow upward instead of outward, protecting them from becoming too heavy.

One limb weighs approximately 6,000 pounds, Dave Culver of the Religious Society of Friends, Salem Monthly Meeting told NJ.com in a 2015 article.

"We found that old trees that survive do end up dropping limbs and become smaller so they can support themselves," Culver said.

But if branches do fall, Culver said the wood is put to good use.

"When the branches fell in 1999, a guy came with a saw mill and cut some branches into slabs. There were some limbs that couldn't be cut that way, so we offered those to some local artisans," he said.

 

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