top of a family tree of people who kept the natural
campus in the public eye and among the University’s
priorities. Among his students were William Lanier
Hunt ’ 30, who pushed Coker’s dream of a botanical
garden and gave the land that birthed it in 1966;
Henry Totten ’ 13, for 50 years a botany professor and a
keeper of the Arboretum; and Ritchie Bell ’ 43, director
of the N.C. Botanical Garden in its formative years.
“From the perspective of the present, he was a very
minent scientist — he came here not only to establish
trees, but he came here to establish a botany program that
was to become one of the best in the country over time,”
said Peter White, current director of the botanical garden.
Coker also started the University’s herbarium, a
museum collection of more than 700,000 specimens
that constitutes the fundamental understanding of
botany in North
The campus as
Coker found it was
flush with the trees
that grew here naturally. Today it is
the joy he took in
native to the region
but not the immediate area — such as
various cypresses —
beyond the borders
of the Arb.
On a return to
South Carolina in
1910, he visited the
grave of the 18th-
Thomas Walter and
looked in vain for
traces of what he
believed was one of
the first botanical gardens in the country. In 1920 Coker
planted the namesake Walter’s pine. Close to the rear of
Spencer dorm, it grew into what botanists say is one of
the most magnificent specimens in the Southeast.
Library, is a 20th-century development and was planted
in straight rows, or allees — willow oaks outside the
walks and white oaks inside — in the 1920s.
The persimmon was there first, it was allowed to
tay, and now it is the only tree outside the columns of
oaks. It may be very, very old, and, because its fruit was
prized, one could speculate that townspeople had discovered it long before Polk Place was built.
The persimmon’s inevitable decline reminds us that
while some will stand for 200 years or more, the lifespan
of most is much shorter — the massive oak that shades
the Old Well is not either of the two that were there in
1930. Most of the Polk Place oaks are reaching the end
of their cycle and can be expected to decline at roughly
the same time.
A study of UNC’s tree landscape completed earlier
this year recommends more of a
mix of species within the Polk
quadrangle — but it also says the
planting in rows should be
maintained because that arrange-
ment dates to Polk’s beginning.
Campus arborist Tom Bythell
says there will be visual growing
pains exacerbated by the loyalty
to row planting: “You’re going to
have a couple of decades when
it’s all a mishmash.”
For now the Polk oaks are
he palace guard whose discipline makes the persimmon easy
to spot not far off the end of
Arborists warn that
the live oaks (queued
up on the right side
of the photo at right)
and willow oaks of
Polk Place could
decline at roughly
the same time.
Something for alumni to think about: Is
it better to replace
them as they die or
take them all down
and start new allees
with young trees of
the same age and
size? At bottom
Jeffrey Beam is the
unofficial guardian of
the Northern catalpa
tree, which serves as
the living symbol of a
turning point in tree
protection (he’s seen
here with another of
his favorites, an
and Phillips halls).
At bottom left, the
catalpa’s spectacular late spring bloom.
Oddball: The persimmon
It is somewhat scraggly looking, way past its fruit-bear- ing years. What is it doing there, a few feet out of step with the perfectly aligned oaks? It is, in fact, dying.
In the beginning there was McCorkle Place, between
he well and Franklin Street, and except for the rows of
cherry trees that line the walkways courtesy of the class
of 1928, arborists have worked to preserve the random,
forest-like arrangement of trees old and new there.
But Polk Place, between South Building and Wilson
stark gray concrete
The Northern catalpa
Its location far outside the old historic grounds is the key factor in its celebrity.
Nobody knows whether it was
planted or sprang naturally. It
does what it can to dress up the
of the Kenan chemistry labs that
form its backdrop. Tall and stately, the Northern catalpa
bides its time until mid-May, when like a burst of fireworks it breaks out in white tubular flowers, ruffled on
the edges, spotted purple inside.
That’s what caught Jeffrey Beam’s eye from his window in Coker Hall. If you plant and tend trees at Carolina, or if you assault one, you know who Beam is. A
librarian and the keeper of a long e-mail list of the other
campus tree watchdogs, he considers the catalpa “family.”
He’d watched an allee of swamp cypress — just the
kind of tree Coker would have planted — go down
next to the site of the new Caudill chemistry labs after
he’d been assured they would be preserved.
“I went c-r-a-z-y,” Beam said.
A Walking Tour
of Campus Trees,
available at Bull’s
in Student Stores.