The Tree Doctor

By Ross Howell Jr. • Photographs by Amy Freeman

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Malcolm Brown muses, gazing at the huge white oak within the circular drive of his Winston-Salem home. “At one time the city was forested with oak and hickory, but most of the native trees are gone. All the more reason to try to preserve these old ones.”

It’s a hot, sunny day, and shadows dapple the lawn. The shade is a blessing. Big boxwoods front the house, and there’s pachysandra ground cover. Beyond a fence two catalpa trees fl ourish. I notice a gingko at the side of the house.

“Planted 20 years ago,” Brown says. “It seems to be quite happy in that spot. And over there, next to the drive. That’s another white oak.” The tree looks to be about 20 feet in height.


“I planted it with my daughter when she was 8 years old. Now she’s 34. Trees have a way of teaching you patience,” he says. We amble along the gravel drive toward the back of the house.

“I don’t know that I can really explain my fascination with trees,” Brown reflects. “I climbed them as a boy, and I always liked the feel of their bark. But it wasn’t until later in life that I became truly interested.”

A retired rheumatologist, Brown is a native of Chicago. He received his M.D. from Columbia University, and practiced medicine in New York City for a decade.

“So I’m a Yankee, you see,” he says with a grin, “although I did some studies in my specialty at Chapel Hill. We knew just a couple of people in Winston-Salem. But when we were thinking about moving here, the trees were a big selling point.”

We step onto a stone patio with outdoors chairs and a sofa. Like the front yard, the area is dappled with shade. There are lush Australian tree ferns in pots.

“We first saw them in New Zealand,” Brown recalls. “After we planted them, we used to be able to winter them in our greenhouse out back. But now they’re so large, we have to keep them in the greenhouse at Reynolda Gardens.”

The main source of shade for the patio is a big tree close to the house.

Brown points out a Princeton elm that replaced another tree, which fell against the house during a storm.

“Trees can be quite an expensive avocation, you know?” he says. The damage to the house was repaired, and the new tree was set in place. “The Princeton elm is a hybrid — a cross between the American elm and the Chinese elm that’s resistant to Dutch elm disease, which killed so many of the elms in the Midwest.”

Beyond the patio is a wide expanse of lawn. Four or five men are hard at work with trimmers, blowers, rakes and pruning shears.

“For my granddaughter’s birthday party this after noon,” Brown explains. “I used to do a lot of the work myself, dragging hoses here and there to water. But I was a younger man then.”

Suddenly, a splash of red attracts my attention. It’s a brightly painted red-and-white structure with a gracefully curved roof at the edge of the lawn.

“A pagoda?” I ask.

“Actually, it’s a Japanese tea house,” Brown replies. “There was a company that sold building kits, and my wife and I fell in love with the design.” The company that sold the kits went out of business, which didn’t stop the Browns from building one on their own. “The bells at the end of the beams are to ward off evil spirits. It’s a place to serve tea, for relaxation and meditation.”

Brown, however, reflects, “My daughter doesn’t share our love for the tea house’s color. So when we had her wedding here, we had to hide it with a tent.”

Near the tea house is a large evergreen shrub. “Loquat,” Brown says. “It’s unusual for around here, or in the States, for that matter, though it’s common in China and Japan. Blooms in the fall. We have to cover it with a canvas tarp every winter to protect it.” He smiles as we move on.

“Much as I love trees, I have to have a bush. That’s a liberty holly,” Brown says. “We must have 10 or 15 different types of holly on the property. I think of the place as an arboretum, rather than a garden. I like to get people talking about trees, thinking about trees.”

“Now there,” he points. “That’s a Japanese tree lilac — Syringa reticulata. It didn’t bloom for the first 10 years. Remember what I said about trees teaching patience? And here’s a Japanese persimmon. As you can see, its fruit is quite large.”

We pass a massive water oak with a weeping hemlock growing beneath its canopy. I notice metal badges with the Latin names inscribed near most of the specimen trees.

“Yes, it’s always better to have the Latin names when you’re trying to get a specific plant,” Brown notes. “The common names can vary widely.”

We come upon a small garden with formal beds. There are boxwood, herbs, peonies and a lovely espaliered apple tree with green fruit.

“This garden is my wife, Patty’s,” Brown says. “We put it in 20 years ago. We don’t always agree on plants, so we sort of divide up the property. She has the areas closest to the house, and is content to leave the rest to me.”

Before us is a wide oval of lawn, and at its center, one of the largest oak trees I’ve ever seen. A comfortable looking wooden bench girds its trunk.

“A nice place to sit and read,” Brown observes. “A neighbor was planning to sell this property for building lots, and we decided to buy the land, largely to save this tree. It’s a post oak, a relative of the white oaks in front of the house. There were other native trees in here we were able to save, too. It was all overgrown, just a jungle of mess.”

There are stepping stones around the perimeter of the lawn. As we walk, Brown peppers me with information.

“A Chinese parasol tree,” he says. “Wonderful fragrance, but it’s now considered an invasive species. I planted that one twenty years ago. This is a dove tree (Davidia involucrata). Red blossoms in spring, but big white bracts grow down from the blooms. They flutter in the breeze, so from a distance they look like white doves perched in the tree. Hence the name. Some people call it the ‘handkerchief tree.’ Same principle. That’s a pomegranate over there. Here, ostrich ferns.”

He continues: “This is a seven-sons bush. Clusters of seven white flowers when it blooms, red berries in fall. A Japanese angelica tree. Cream-colored blossoms, sharp spines on the trunk and branches. And this, the monkey puzzle tree.”

We gaze upon an odd-looking evergreen, a maze of fierce-looking, tightly packed, spiky leaves on thick branches. According to writer Alan Mitchell, when the plant was imported to England in the mid-19th century, an observer is said to have commented, “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that,” and the common name stuck.

Next we pass a coral bark Japanese maple, a Korean sweetheart tree and a Japanese hardy orange. Seeing the 2-inch spikes bristling among the citrus’ leaves, it’s easy to understand why the Japanese hardy orange is sometimes called the “Crown of Thorns.”

I’m scribbling notes, trying to keep up. There are natives scattered in as well — hickory, poplar, and an enormous mulberry tree.

“This is Japanese umbrella pine, and here is Emmenopterys henryi. See? The bark is like a cherry tree. It produces beautiful blossoms,” Brown says, moving quickly. “This is paper bark maple. It’s one of my favorites; the bark comes off in big sheets, like parchment. This is Japanese cat leaf maple. This one is Parotia persica, commonly called Persian ironwood. Isn’t the mottled bark  extraordinary? This is lacebark pine, and this is dawn redwood. Its genus dates from the time of the dinosaurs.” Among these extraordinary trees are more natives — small leaf linden, white horse chestnut, pawpaw, hickory, big leaf magnolia, shagbark hickory and chestnut oak.

Then we come to Brown’s castor aralia (Kalopanax septemlobus). One of the dominant trees in northeastern Asia, a single plant was first sent in 1881 to Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum — where Brown first saw a specimen. He planted this tree, and most of the other specimens on our tour, as a seedling.

“I love to see how they grow,” he says. “See how their characteristics change.”

Mature castor aralia trees can reach a height of 100 feet. Younger trees like Brown’s bristle with sharp, symmetrically spaced spines, or “prickles,” on the trunk. Its leaves, featuring five to seven lobes, are thick and clustered.

“I suppose this is my favorite,” Brown says, smiling as he steps back, shading his eyes as he looks up to admire the tree’s growth. “It fools a lot of the experts who try to identify it.”

I scribble a few more notes.

“I should let you get ready for your granddaughter’s party,” I say. Brown smiles, and we shake hands. For a moment, we both look back at the 4 acres we’ve just walked, resplendent with living things.

As Brown walks me to my car, he pauses for a moment, studying the top of a big white oak tree across the road in a neighbor’s yard.

“See how the crown of that tree is losing leaves?” he asks. “That’s not good.” He shakes his head. “They always need looking after, don’t they?”

Ross Howell Jr. is a sometimes-successful gardener and author of the historical novel Forsaken, a fi nalist for the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction and nominee for the Library of Virginia Literary Award.

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