Cloning the oak?
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Cloning the oak?

As historic Teaneck tree goes down, scientists hope to propagate new ones

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The huge and historic red oak, no longer healthy, posed a risk to passersby. Photos by Josh Lipowsky

As the rain poured from the sky like teardrops on Monday, the roar of chainsaws echoed around Teaneck as more than 250 years of history came to an end as workers cut down the massive red oak tree overlooking Cedar Lane.

The tree, estimated to have been between 250 and 350 years old and thought to have been the fourth largest red oak in New Jersey, stood on the property of the modern Orthodox synagogue Netivot Shalom, but thanks to a Puffin Foundation grant, Bergen County had taken responsibility for the tree’s maintenance since 2011. Last month, county inspectors declared that the tree had become a danger to passersby and had to go.

The tree survived all of America’s wars, but Mother Nature eventually took its toll. Previous evaluations of the tree seemed positive, but a more thorough inspection after superstorm Sandy revealed damage inside the tree’s branches hanging over Cedar Lane, according to Jeanne Baratta, chief of staff of Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan. She also pointed to the discovery of termites, which do not colonize healthy trees, and damage from a lightning strike some five to 10 years earlier. Further, the county arborist’s report determined that the root system had been damaged 20 years earlier when Cedar Lane had been widened.

“As much as we regretted having to take that tree down, it was for the safety of the residents of Teaneck and anybody driving down Cedar Lane,” Baratta said.

This isn’t the end for the old oak, however – at least not if science has anything to say. Cloning may still be the realm of science fiction for the most part, but researchers are attempting to create genetic duplicates of the Teaneck oak.

Professors Jason Grabosky and Tom Molnar of Rutgers took approximately 1,000 cuttings from the tree last week and hope to propagate new life from the samples using various growth hormones. Rutgers also will provide 50 to 75 cuttings to Pinelands Nursery in Columbus to graft onto another red oak’s roots. New Jersey State Forestry received the remaining cuttings and will attempt its own cultivation at the New Jersey Forest Nursery in Jackson.

If efforts to clone the red oak are unsuccessful, Bergen County will provide approximately 25 young red oak trees to Teaneck to plant around the township.

The stump outside Netivot Shalom will remain for up to two years, with the hope that new life may sprout from the tree’s saplings. The property easement that handed responsibility for the tree to the county will remain in effect during that period and a chain-link fence will protect the area. Michael Rogovin, president of Netivot Shalom, voiced his support for efforts to re-grow the oak.

“We’re very sad to see the tree go,” he said. “The tree provided shade for the play area that was used by our youth as well as the day care center. It was a beautiful, stately tree that represented part of Teaneck history.”

While science attempts to create new life from the old oak, the tree’s limbs will be made available to craftsmen. The Puffin Foundation has received a number of limbs, which it is making available to people who’d like to carve pieces of art from them, while smaller branches will be turned into woodchips to adorn area parks.

“We’re trying to make the best commemoration for the tree going forward,” said Neal Rosenstein, vice president of the Puffin Foundation. “In many ways, the tree will go on in functional artwork and plantings around the township.”

The tree’s removal on Monday marked the end of a long saga. The Union for Traditional Judaism, which had owned the property, had attempted to remove the tree in 2010 after it had declared bankruptcy and decided to sell the land. Rabbi Ronald Price, then the UTJ’s executive vice president, maintained that the group’s efforts to cut down the tree were purely for safety, and that the organization had been told by tree inspectors that the tree’s branches posed a danger. This ignited the passions of conservationists, including state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, whose late husband, Irvin, had fought to save the tree from destruction some three decades earlier.

In an email to the Jewish Standard earlier this week, Price expressed sadness about the tree’s fate but lamented how long it took the county to recognize the danger the red oak posed.

“I was amazed at the time that the Teaneck town council as well as Bergen County rather than supporting the protection of men, women and children residents, refused to take any action in the face of a rowdy few and one well known politician,” he wrote. “I have had to live with the knowledge that leaders left every resident and visitor in Teaneck at risk for over two years. The passing of this tree is the end of an era. But that is the way of all material things including ourselves. Risking lives for tree limbs is a perversion of conservation.”

Time will tell whether the cloning efforts will succeed, but perhaps in 150 years, future generations in Teaneck will sit under an oak tree that can trace its roots back to this week’s events. Puffin and Bergen County appear ready to make that reality blossom.

“We’re very appreciative of the cooperation that we’ve gotten from the county,” Rosenstein said. “They deserve credit for ensuring that a plan is put in place for allowing the lineage of this tree to continue.

“We look forward to working with them to make sure that that takes place.”

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