The mighty oak falls at London Grove Meeting09/27/2023 03:14PM ● By Chris Barber
At midmorning on Sept. 19, the 350-plus-year-old Penn Oak tree at the London Grove Friends Meetinghouse crashed to the ground.
As the word spread, many tears were shed.
Mark Myers, who has cared for the tree for the past 30 years or so, said this:
“People are in mourning as you would be for a person who has been present. … It embodied the life and soul of the Meeting. Its branches reached out over the grounds as if to gather and hold the spirits of all who went there. Weddings and memorials were held under the tree, and the members met once a month in the summer under it for their meeting. This [tradition] --from what we can gather-- was active for the life of the tree for about 300 years.”
The Penn Oak came down fast after the initial crack was heard, but no one was hurt. The kids attending the kindergarten housed at the meetinghouse were out for a walk but a safe distance away. When someone from within heard a loud bang, she beckoned the kids to hurry inside.
In just seconds, the tree, which grew beside the meetinghouse parking lot, hit the ground, causing only damage to the roof of a nearby garage.
The London Grove Meeting Penn Oak is listed as the Champion White Oak in Pennsylvania because it is the biggest. Its species name is “querous alba.” It was 82 feet tall and had a spread of 120 feet. Its circumference was last measured at 22 feet, 2 inches.
Attempts to measure its age technologically have been only approximate because of its large size and dense interior, putting it at about 350 years. It has been widely credited as being present when William Penn came to Pennsylvania in 1682. Ironically, in its death, now that the rings are visible, they can be counted and the number of years closer to exact number can be determined.
Myers said through his frequent observations and studies to date, he believes the tree was closer to 400 years than 300.
The London Grove Friends Meeting is host of the London Grove Kindergarten, and has been for generations. When the word spread that the tree had come down, kindergarten graduates of all ages spoke of their memories there and, in many cases, those of their children and grandchildren.
The head of school, Deni-Lin Lane, is herself a graduate of the kindergarten, as are her children.
She said, “I can’t imagine not seeing it there.”
The kindergarten and its accompanying pre-school are widely known for embracing the environment and passing on a love of nature to its students. Many of their activities—storytelling, yoga, picnics and recreation—were based around the tree.
Lane said the students routinely went out to sketch the tree during three seasons in observation of the changes in its appearance.
After the crash, she said many of the children had tears. In the tree’s honor they talked about how it loved, protected and gave back to them. They placed flowers beside it.
Bennett Baird, the chairman of the Properties Committee at the Meeting, said the tree was in relatively good shape above ground, but that mushrooms “as big as one or two feet” were growing at its base, an indication of rotting in the root system.
“We knew there was a problem because mushrooms around the base indicated rotten wood underneath. The roots were not enough to support it,” he said.
Myers said generations of Meeting members who are now buried in its graveyard had expressed the hope to live as long as they could but, “(T)hey didn’t want to outlive the tree.”
Throughout its recent years the tree has been well cared for – almost pampered. Longwood Gardens has provided watering, feeding and trimming as well as installing cables to alleviate the strain of heavy limbs on those below them.
One of the subjects that was brought up immediately after the news broke of the fall was whether the tree had offspring and if acorns could be planted to grow the tree’s children.
Going back years, people have planted its acorns and grown Penn Oak offspring. One Unionville graduate from the 1960s said he recalled his father planting the Penn Oak acorns in the front yard. Many others have mentioned on social media that they too have Penn Oak children in their yards.
On the Meetinghouse property there are three of the tree’s children grown from acorns, one of them alongside the parking lot sign that welcomes people to the kindergarten.
Meeting clerk and spokesman Terry Anderson added that because of cross pollination which begets acorns, the genetic code of the acorn babies is a hybrid of the parent tree. There are some other offspring that bear its pure genetics made from slip-cutting a small branch and attaching it to another parent tree and permitting it to grow.
On the meetinghouse property there is in fact a slip-cutting of a Salem Oak from New Jersey growing. That tree, Myers said, was even older than the Penn Oak and will probably grow to the size of its parents.
Anderson also said the many people expressed interest in making objects out of the wood which in some way would honor its life. She said a committee has been formed to decide what the destination of the tree’s remains will be, but it will take time.
She issued this statement:
“We are very sad. It was a spiritual connection. We ask that people respect our privacy and the Quaker process as we finalize the decision to decide how to use it. We are aware of the many requests for wood and will be deciding how to accommodate them in a way that honors the tree.”
The tree grew at the meetinghouse in West Marlborough Township beside the parking lot at the intersection of Newark and Street roads.