By Andrea Alexander for Rutgers Today
New Jersey is known for the industrial landscape along the turnpike and the landmarks of the Jersey Shore. But one of the state’s greatest treasures may be its least well known — the nation’s largest collection of flowering cherry trees in Essex County’s Branch Brook Park.
For the last decade, Rutgers alumnus Paul Cowie has been part of an effort to restore and expand the collection that erupts with striking pink blossoms each spring.
Since Cowie and the consulting firm he runs started working in the park, the number of cherry trees has grown from less than 1,000 to 4,300. Newark is home to more cherry trees than Washington, D.C., which draws visitors each year with its display of 3,800 trees blooming in the shadow of Capitol Hill.
Rutgers’ connection to the state’s hidden treasure runs deep. A crew of volunteers trained through the Rutgers Master Gardeners Program works with Cowie throughout the year to prune, maintain and monitor the health of the cherry trees.
“We take a lot of pride in it because we are the only group of master gardeners taking care of a national treasure,” said Pat Hewitt, of Montclair. “It is a national treasure, whether the rest of the country realizes it or not.”
The allure of the cherry trees is tied to the brief but breathtaking bloom which lasts about three weeks each spring. The annual festival at Branch Brook Park celebrating the blossoms is scheduled from April 11-22.
“I think the fact that it is a quick flash that comes after the winter, especially this winter, is what makes the cherry trees special,” Cowie said. “You get a couple of warm days and then there is a flash of color. It’s like starting over, it’s like a rebirth and new life.”
Cowie, a 1985 Rutgers graduate who holds a degree in natural resource management, said Branch Brook Park is celebrated as a “landscape masterpiece of national significance.” It was the first county park in the nation, conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for his work on Central Park, and was designed by the Olmsted Brothers firm after he retired.
The cherry tree collection was a later addition to the park, which is listed on both the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places. Caroline Bamberger Fuld, a founder of the Bamberger department store chain which had its flagship in Newark, donated 2,000 cherry trees in 1927 after returning from a trip to Japan.
But cherry trees have a life span of only 40 to 50 years and by the 1970s both the park and collection were suffering from neglect. About a decade ago, the park was rescued by a dedicated group of volunteers who spearheaded its renaissance. They formed the nonprofit Branch Brook Park Alliance to work with Essex County and raise money to restore the park.
That is when Cowie and the Rutgers master gardeners became involved. The alliance hired Cowie to assist with a park-wide inventory, which revealed that more than half of the cherry trees were dying off. His firm, the Parsippany-based Paul Cowie and Associates, provides guidance on the preservation and maintenance of trees in urban areas and worked on the design of the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City.
In 2004 Cowie assumed the role of cherry tree collection manager, as Essex County pursued plans to build a world-class collection of 5,000 cherry trees that would be the largest in the country. One of his roles is to train and oversee a volunteer effort to assist with park maintenance.
The master gardeners started volunteering in the park after they took a pruning class with Cowie. The volunteers receive training through the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station as part of a national program to increase environmental awareness and share university research with the public. Their work in Branch Brook Park helps fulfill their mission of public outreach and education, said Jan Zientek, a department head for the experiment station who advises the master gardeners in Essex County.
The master gardeners visit the park every Wednesday weather permitting to remove dead limbs and report to Cowie on the condition of the trees. They offer a trained eye and help to accomplish the daunting task of examining each of the 4,300 cherry trees.
“The contribution the master gardeners are making is significant,” said Barbara Bell Coleman, a founder and co-chair of the Branch Brook Park Alliance, and a 1974 graduate of Rutgers University-Newark College of Arts and Sciences. “They have more knowledge than the average volunteer.”
The master gardeners provide guidance for other volunteers and have expanded their work to provide assistance throughout the park.
“The master gardeners continue to care for the trees so they will never fall on hard times again,” Coleman said. “It’s a massive undertaking that could never been done without volunteers.”
Cowie said he considers his work on the cherry trees collection a project of a lifetime.
“You really feel like you are doing something, not just taking care of the trees, but contributing to the community because this park is really special to a lot of people,” Cowie said. “It is a world-class cherry tree collection and there is pride that comes with that.”