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The secrets behind the world-famous cherry blossoms at NJ’s Branch Brook Park

An army of workers and volunteers maintains the more than 5,000 cherry blossom trees at Branch Brook Park in Newark.
An army of workers and volunteers maintains the more than 5,000 cherry blossom trees at Branch Brook Park in Newark.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a small city to raise a cherry-blossom tree.

Well, not just one — more like 5,300 cherry blossoms that famously dot the open fields and gentle slopes of Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ, bringing with them a blazing bloom of pink and white petals that delight a quarter-million visitors from around the globe every spring.

Of course, making sure the plants are up to snuff for their annual coming-out party is no small task.

The Essex County government often buys the trees, then has workers and volunteers do the back-breaking chore of digging the holes at Branch Brook, a site dreamt up by Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead and completed by his sons decades later.

A small army of volunteers, county workers and members of a local nonprofit maintain the more than 5,000 world-famous Japanese cherry blossom trees at Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK
A small army of volunteers, county workers and members of a local nonprofit maintain the more than 5,000 world-famous Japanese cherry blossom trees at Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK

It is then up to the park’s maintenance staff and the Branch Brook Park Alliance, a small nonprofit that harnesses the strength of thousands of volunteers, to make sure the trees live up to their awe-inspiring reputation in the nation’s first county park.

“It’s truly, I would say, a public-private partnership,” said Kate Kartwyk, deputy director of the Essex County Parks Department, to The Post this week.

The cherry blossoms have been a fixture at the 360-acre site since 1927, when wealthy department-store heiress Caroline Bamberger Fuld donated about 2,000 of them to the park after falling in love with their pleasant hues during a trip to Japan, according to alliance President Thomas B. Dougherty, Jr.

The historic park opened in 1895 — but the colorful array of cherry blossoms made it sparkle.

After a century of ups and downs, this sliver of Essex County now boasts the largest and most varied collection of cherry blossoms anywhere in the country — even surpassing its slightly more famous counterpart in Washington, D.C.

It wasn’t always that way, though.

A group of about eight Rutgers University-certified master gardeners — including (from left) Lois Young, Kathy Kirk, Jerry Schilp and Lynn Lopes — volunteer to prune the cherry blossoms every Tuesday afternoon from March to November, Schilp said. Jerry Schilp
A group of about eight Rutgers University-certified master gardeners — including (from left) Lois Young, Kathy Kirk, Jerry Schilp and Lynn Lopes — volunteer to prune the cherry blossoms every Tuesday afternoon from March to November, Schilp said. Jerry Schilp

In 2004, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. tasked the then-recently-formed nonprofit with cataloging the original collection, Dougherty told The Post. When they were done, they found only 1,000 trees remained from the original endowment.

That eventually changed with a little sweat, a little time — and a little cash.

Now, after several bursts of planting, Branch Brook boasts 18 varieties of cherry blossoms that start blooming in early March and continue all the way into May, he said.

The full bloom — or the time when more than 70% of the delicate collection is in some stage of the flowering cycle — will likely hit between April 4 and April 14, Dougherty said.

But few of the 250,000 or so expected annual visitors who will traipse beneath the rosy canopy of blossoming Yoshinos and Kwanzans will ever know how much work goes into keeping them alive.

Branch Brook Park’s cherry blossoms will be in what’s considered “full bloom” from about April 4 to April 14. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK
Branch Brook Park’s cherry blossoms will be in what’s considered “full bloom” from about April 4 to April 14. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK
The Branch Brook Park Alliance harnesses the strength of nearly 4,000 volunteers who devote their time to the park each year. Branch Brook Park Alliance/Facebook
The Branch Brook Park Alliance harnesses the strength of nearly 4,000 volunteers who devote their time to the park each year. Branch Brook Park Alliance/Facebook

Their upkeep includes hours upon hours of watering and mulching — which is often done by the 4,000 volunteers who work the park each year — as well as fertilization and soil care, which Dougherty said is led by a horticulturist and landscape management director.

The alliance only has four full-time employees, so it also relies on skilled volunteers such as Jerry Schilp, a retired middle-school math teacher from Maywood, NJ, who is now a Rutgers University-certified master gardener.

Schilp, who is in his eighth year helping out at Branch Brook, told The Post that he walks the cherry blossoms every Tuesday from March to November with the same group of two men and six women — all master gardeners — in search of errant branches to prune back.

The cherry blossoms first came to the Newark park in 1927, when a wealthy heiress donated 2,000 of the trees after falling in love with their hues during a trip to Japan. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK
The cherry blossoms first came to the Newark park in 1927, when a wealthy heiress donated 2,000 of the trees after falling in love with their hues during a trip to Japan. Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK

“We want to air out the trees, so we clean up the middle and let it breathe a little better,” Schilp, 69, said. “We take off any dead branches and branches that cross [each other] because they’ll rub … and the tree can get diseases. It’s basically just keeping them healthy.”

On a good day, the saw-hoisting group can clean up nearly two dozen cherry blossoms, he said. Other times, they’ll work for two days straight on a single mammoth tree whose branches might demand more consideration.

“Every different variety of plant has a different way it wants to grow and a different time of the year to prune it,” he said. “And we know that.”

It might sound like a laborious way to enjoy your retirement. But Schilp loves it.

“It’s very zen-like,” Schilp said. “You go out there, you cut a branch, you step back, you cut another one. It’s like a bonsai tree, just 20 feet tall.”

If he had one thing he’d like to tell the public, it’s this: Enjoy the trees — but be respectful.

“Don’t pick them, and don’t climb in them,” Schilp said. “They’re not the strongest trees in the world.

“But take as many pictures as you want!” he added. “They’re historic … and they’re beautiful.”