Dr. Brown’s Wood

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Forest TrailOne of the best things about being a general assignment reporter for a small newspaper, whether daily or weekly, is that you basically have a license to be nosy. And to me, curiosity is perhaps a reporter’s greatest characteristic.

After all, a lot of people can write, and write well, but germ of a good story comes from a curious mind. Good stories come from good questions and good questions come from an insatiable itch to know stuff.

When I’ve interviewed candidates for reporter jobs, in addition to finding out if they can write and whether they have published clips, I want know if the candidate is curious, because I can coach/train you to be a better interviewer, writer, or reporter, but I can’t give you that innate need to know that’s is so critical for high-quality story telling.

I remember one time many years ago while driving around in the mountains in Mineral County, W.Va., I noticed that a little grove of trees along the side of the mountain looked a lot different than the surrounding forest. A great deal of the Mountain State is managed forests filled with run-of-the-mill pines. But this little grove was different. I wondered why.

Pulling into the driveway there, I knocked on the door and out came a retired Frostburg State University professor. I asked him about the trees and then over the course of an hour or so, Dr. Melvin Brown told me about his unusual hobby.

When I got back to the office, I turned my notes of the encounter into the following story. BTW, I think I won a feature writing award for this.

The Weekend Edition, News-Tribune, Mountain Echo-Keyser, W.Va., Sept. 16, 1989

Trees From All Over the World Share a County Grove

By Steve Campbell

Nestled in the hills just a few miles from Elk Garden along a bend in the road called Sulpher City stands a grove of trees unlike any other in the state, perhaps in the world.

In that four-acre wood over the past 40 years biologist and former Frostburg State University professor Dr. Melvin L. Brown of LaVale has created a private arboretum.

Sharing the forest canopy with native oak, birch and red spruce are trees from all over the state, country and world.

Firs from Yugoslavia and Turkey stand tall along side their concolor cousins from the Great Smoky mountains.

Everygreens from the Rocky and Shasta mountain ranges now claim the Mountain State as home.

At last count, some 300 to 400 species of oak, pine, fir, beech, ash, dogwood, cypress, elm and maple grace the small wooded lot. Each tree bearing its own tag with both the common and scientific name.

The arboretum is part hobby, part research project. Most of the species are from mountainous areas with wet climates.

“I’ve got a lot of things growing here that people wouldn’t think would grow here,” Brown said.

“I try to see if they will survive, that’s part of the idea,” he said.

Survive? Yes, they do. Most thrive.

Several pines, planted when the project began back in 1948, tower over the surrounding forest.

“That giant fir will reach six to eight feet across when mature,” Brown said.

That will be in about 100 years thank you. Most of Brown’s trees are under 40 years old.

The selection spans the globe. Turkey, Greece, Korea, Japan, China, Spain, England and Yugoslavia are represented.

“When the Olympics were being held in Yugoslavia and they showed the mountains with the evergreens on them, a lot of those evergreens are Serbian spruce,” Brown said.

Elk Garden too has a Serbian spruce.

There are bald cypress trees, whose knobby knees protrude the surface of lakes in New Jersey and are sold as souvenirs.

Dr. Brown’s bald cypress is pushing up knees of its own some 20 to 30 feet from the tree’s trunk.

A jack fir from the Great Lakes with cones that never fall off stands with its twisted and gnarled branches. As it matures, branches often grow around the cones. It is not unusual, Brown says, when sawing lumber from a jack fir, to come across an entire cone in the middle of a two-by-four.

The larch of Monty Python fame, which loses its short piney needles every winter, shares the skyline with the noble fir and ponderosa pine. The variety is astonishing.

“It gives you an idea that if they wanted to, they could grow other timber trees beside this awful Scotch pine and red pine. This would be valuable timber. I tried to talk to people at Westvaco to give them this idea,” Brown said.

“These are vine maples,” Brown said as he bent over to pick a branch from the ground. “They are natives of the Olympia rain forest in the state of Washington.”

Long branches droop to the ground bearing wide leaves with many lobes, although this particular tree, like many in the grove have few leaves left.

Deer and Japanese beetles have taken their toll this year. And like the rest of the timber around Elk Garden and along the Allegany Front, Dr. Brown’s trees have been ravaged by gypsy moths.

“They’ll eat anything. Though this is the first year they have been bad here,” he said.

The little critters nearly killed a stately English oak. It won’t survive another onslaught.

Brown and a couple of his neighbors are signing up to have the area sprayed next spring. Together they meet the 50 acre minimum.

Water oaks, willow oaks, Chinese elm, Japanese weeping maples, exotic jinseng, Brown points them out explaining what make each unusual and valuable.

The mutant cousins of mighty evergreens forsake reaching to the sky preferring instead to hug the ground next to mountain cranberries, blue berries, buck berries and even wild raspberries. It’s no wonder he has a deer problem.

The trees come to Brown as seeds or saplings from nurseries all over America. Some are from the botanical garden at Niagara Falls, others from the National Arboretum in Washington.

One of the rarest species is a small down redwood or meta sequoia named after the Indians. The only clues to the tree’s existence were fossils.

“This wasn’t known to exist until 1942 when a Chinese scientist found it up in one of the valleys over there. the natives were about to cut down the last of them,” Brown said.

Another nearly extinct variety is the round leaf birch.

“It’s rare, really rare. It has never been found except in one place in the world,” Brown said.

That place was the mountains in Virginia. Many years ago someone found a grove of them and brought back samples. Unfortunately, that grove was lost.

About five or six years ago, a group of men went on an expedition to find the lost stand. After a week’s search, the rate trees were found.

“They brought back some twigs and grafted it onto a sweet birch and I’m one of the lucky ones to get one. It’s the only one of these I know of in the state of West Virginia,” Brown said.

The sapling is still young and only time will tell whether it will produce seeds from the rare round leaf graft or from the sweet birch root.

A purple beech, native of Europe, the blue ash, used by Indians to make war paint, and a dwarf red buckeye with its scarlet blooms join maroon lilacs, Frazier magnolias and red, white and pink dogwoods.

On the ground grow wild flowers, devils spike, fox glove, mountain iris and wild bleeding heart found on Dolly Sods.

A dozen of azaleas and rhododendron produce a springtime splash of color and an intoxicating bouquet.

Dr. Brown’s four-acre wood is indeed a beautiful and rare treasure.