PHELPS PARK: In the heart of Teaneck
lies a one-acre arboretum
by Howard Prosnitz, Staff Writer
Teaneck Suburbanite, June 11, 2008, p. 5
In 1952, when Fairleign Dickinson University acquired the campus of the former Bergen Junior College, it sought to add a township-owned parcel of land to its River Road campus. A land swap was arranged, and the township gave up the property along the river in exchange for a piece of land on the west side of River Road owned by FDU. That 15.71-acre property became Phelps Park.
Located in the heart of Teaneck, only four blocks from Cedar Lane, Phelps Park is one of the township's most heavily used parks. Its amenties include two baseball fields, a basketball and a tennis court, the latter serving the Teaneck High School tennis team, and a picnic area. Phelps Park is also one of four township parks that has a swimming pool.
But the park is unique among Teaneck's park for another reason: it is the only park to have an arboretum, a collectiom or museum of trees.
Begun in 2002 and yet to be given an official opening, the arboretum occupies approximately one acre of the park and is home to about 150 trees which have been identified.
It is appropriate that Teaneck's arboretum is located in a park named for William Walter Phelps, the 19th century lawyer and congressman whose estate occupied much of the area that is Teaneck today. Phelps was an ardent arbori-culturist and was said to have planted more than 600,000 trees between 1875-1880.
Those that comprise the arboretum are collected in rows and gathered by species, said George Reskakis, chair of the township's Parks, Playgrounds and Recreation Advisory Board.
"The arrangement indicates that they did not grow hazardously, but were planted by design," Reskakis said. He noted that Phelps's estate extended from Teaneck Road to River Road and from Route 4 to the area of DeGraw Avenue.
"River Road was a main frontage to his land, so it would make sense that he would plant a beautiful grove in this area," Reskakis said.
He noted that the PPRAB had considered other sites for the arboretum, including the picnic area of Amman Park, but chose Phelps because of the greater abundance and variety of trees.
Oaks are the most prevalent species in the collection, with six different types represented, including red oak, the state tree.
Among the oak species is a large cottonwood, "an unfortunate tree," said Jim Ilgenfritz, a professional arborist and PPRAB member. "We try to get those taken away as soon as we can, but they are massive," he said. Cottonwoods are undesireable because their soft wood makes them vulnerable to storm damage. They are also short-lived and disease prone.
"If a red oak lives for 100 years, then a cottonwood lives about 35," Ilgenfritz said.
Other oaks found at the arboretum include the pine oak, white oak and English oak.
The British navy owed much of its strength in the days of sailing ships to the English oak, said Ilgenfritz.
"The story is that they were so successful because they had plenty of oak trees to make into masts."
All arboretum trees will eventually be identified by labels giving both their popular and scientific names. The labeling project is underway, but about 14 of the labels have been stolen, said Reskakis. Newer labels are being placed higher up on trees to discourage vandals.
Phelps Park also boasts a small wetland in the northeast corner. Reskakis noted that 19th century maps of Bergen County show a stream running through the area that drains into the Hackensack River.
"The wetland is a remnant of that stream," Reskakis said, noting that it is uncommon to find a wetland in the middle of an urban park.
"Phelps Park is one of the real jewels of the Teaneck park system," Reskakis said, noting that the parks are on of the reason that he lives in town. "People who haven't visited Phelps Park are missing a beautiful thing."