In 2019, New Jersey’s largest and oldest tree, the picturesque Salem Oak, was downed. It was approximately 650 years old. Imagine the people surrounding this seedling as it grew into a majestic tree: Lenni-Lenape, Dutch and Swedish, and then the French and British. It was part of a beautiful forest in a bustling New York City suburb. If only a tree could talk.
The New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry has a nursery in Jackson that grows more than 25 evergreen and deciduous trees and shrub species. The nursery sells these bareroot tree seedlings in early spring, through their Seedlings for Reforestation program, in packs of 50.
They also have another role. They gather acorns and seed pods from New Jersey heritage trees for perpetuation into the future, and that is where this story begins.
Introduce Michael Worwerk, the nursery manager. Besides making sure the nursery flourishes, he is responsible for the nursery’s fascinating educational programs on trees. And he is instrumental in plans to bring a scion of the noble Salem Oak to Sparta.
Students in grades 4 and 5 at Sparta’s Helen Morgan School read “Wish Tree” by Katherine Applegate as part of the “One Book, One School” program. This short novel is about a tree similar to the Salem Oak, and to the venerable white oak on Sparta Historical Society property.
The New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry was going to hold the Third Grade Seedling program before it was cancelled by Covid. The program was to be held at the Van Kirk Homestead Museum for all 240 Sparta third-graders in 2020 and 2021 under the beautiful landscape of their White Oak, which is listed in the New Jersey Big Tree registry. It’s about 370 years old and is a sight to behold.
It’s because of this wonderful tree and the Third Grade Seedling program that members of the Sparta Historical Society and the forestry nursery became friends during an irregular time. In December, Scott Kercher, the Sparta schools’ social studies curriculum supervisor, told the historical society about a special Helen Morgan School program, to be held March-April 2021, that incorporated the Newbury award winning book “Wish Tree.” The historical society knew about the Salem Oak seedlings and immediately contacted forestry nursery – and, as they say, the rest is history.
Thanks to the forestry nursery, and Mike Worwerk in particular, towns throughout New Jersey may apply for their very own free Salem Oak seedling, while the supply lasts.
Sparta Mayor Christine Quinn immediately sent an order request. In the photo you will see Worwerk with Sparta’s healthy seedling, to be delivered and planted at Helen Morgan school during a ceremony to cement the lessons from the book and become a lasting memory for the students.
The Sparta Historical Society looks forward to the seedling’s arrival and is grateful to Worwerk and the forestry nursery, Kercher and the Sparta schools, and Mayor Quinn for all their efforts.