cherry blossoms at Branch Brook Park in Newark New Jersey


Nick Romanenko

Thanks to the effort and expertise of the Rutgers community, it is not necessary to make a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to witness cherry blossoms in full glory. This annual rite of spring can be enjoyed, in an unprecedented way, in New Jersey—at Branch Brook Park in Newark and Belleville, which is now home to the largest cherry tree collection in the United States. In April, the park hosted, once again, the Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival, but this year there was even more to celebrate. Two years ago, a volunteer crew of master gardeners from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Essex County began maintaining a good portion of the park’s cherry trees, which now number 4,300. Ten years ago, there were 1,000 trees. Two alumni have played a big role in the pruning and replanting effort. Paul Cowie CC’85, founder and president of Cowie and Associates consulting firm, is the cherry tree collection manager for the Branch Brook Park Alliance, a public-private partnership formed in 1999 to help Essex County restore the park. He works with the adviser to the Rutgers Master Gardeners of Essex County, Jan Zientek CC’82. 

Branch Brook—the oldest county park in the United States—was designed in 1867 by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the landscape architect responsible for Manhattan’s Central Park. The oldest cherry trees arrived in the 1920s, a gift of Caroline Bamberger Fuld, who donated 2,000 Japanese flowering cherry trees, a collection that eventually grew to 3,000. Unfortunately, the park was neglected during the 1970s and ’80s—and so were its cherry trees, which typically live for 30 years. This year, the Rutgers master gardeners expanded their mission to address general landscaping and maintenance of the north zone of the park, in particular removing invasive plant species to allow plants from the Olmsted design to become reestablished.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the national Cooperative Extension System, which was formed upon the signing of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Earlier, in 1862, the Morrill Act paved the way for legislation that enabled a land-grant university such as Rutgers—which this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary of receiving land-grant status—to conduct research that would be disseminated to the public through agricultural experiment stations and cooperative extension services. The Hatch Act of 1887 amended the Morrill Act and established state agricultural experiment stations at land-grant universities. The New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station grew out of the Hatch Act.