The Tree Collectors

Tales of Arboreal Obsession

About the Book

Fifty vignettes of remarkable people whose lives have been transformed by their obsessive passion for trees—written and charmingly illustrated by the New York Times bestselling author of The Drunken Botanist

“I love everything Amy Stewart has ever created, but this book is my favorite yet. I’m giving this book to everyone I know. Because it, like its subject, is a gift.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love

When Amy Stewart discovered a community of tree collectors, she expected to meet horticultural fanatics driven to plant every species of oak or maple. But she also discovered that the urge to collect trees springs from something deeper and more profound: a longing for community, a vision for the future, or a path to healing and reconciliation. 

In this slyly humorous, informative, often poignant volume, Stewart brings us captivating stories of people who spend their lives in pursuit of rare and wonderful trees and are transformed in the process. Vivian Keh has forged a connection to her Korean elders through her persimmon orchard. The former poet laureate W. S. Merwin planted a tree almost every day for more than three decades, until he had turned a barren estate into a palm sanctuary. And Joe Hamilton cultivates pines on land passed down to him by his once-enslaved great-grandfather, building a legacy for the future.

Stewart populates this lively compendium with her own hand-drawn watercolor portraits of these extraordinary people and their trees, interspersed with side trips to investigate famous tree collections, arboreal glossaries, and even tips for “unauthorized” forestry. This book is a stunning tribute to a devoted group of nature lovers making their lives—and the world—more beautiful, one tree at a time.
Read more

Praise for The Tree Collectors

“I love everything Amy Stewart has ever created, but this book is my favorite yet. I’m giving this book to everyone I know. Because it, like its subject, is a gift.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The City of Girls and The Signature of All Things

“These mesmerizing trees, and the inspiring people they’ve transformed, will alter your perspective and give you hope.”—Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees

“What a gift! The Tree Collectors takes us on a whirlwind planetary journey into the wondrously entangled life of people and plants. With this book, Amy Stewart shows us how we are all related to one another, through trees.”—Katie Holten, author of The Language of Trees

“Blue gum eucalyptus, oaks, maples, ginkgoes, boxwoods, cottonwoods, dogwoods, mangos, flowering cherries . . . With graceful prose and tender watercolors, Amy Stewart’s arboreal global tour explores the fragility and resilience of Earth’s great canopy. The Tree Collectors ushers readers into the hidden groves and lush forests where the world’s most dedicated gardeners plant the landscape of the future.”—Lauren Redniss, author of Oak Flat

“Like the brushstrokes in the fine paintings alongside them, Stewart’s vignettes add up to something more: a powerful portrait of the human passion for plants and a paean to what the plants give back.”—Thor Hanson, author of The Triumph of Seeds

“Amy Stewart brings us inside the hidden world of tree collecting in this delightfully offbeat book about a group of otherwise normal people as diverse as the specimens they collect. The Tree Collectors will take root in your consciousness and nurture your soul.”—William Alexander, author of Ten Tomatoes that Changed the World

“Reading The Tree Collectors feels like sitting down and having the best kind of coffee date with one fascinating person after another. No matter your arboreal experience or expertise, you will learn something, while feeling uplifted by Stewart’s own thoughtful and bright botanical illustrations.”—Kathryn Aalto, author of Writing Wild

“Literary pointillism . . . a warm and brilliant mural of life that tells a larger story about humanity: our desires, our losses, our salvation, and our place on a beautiful living planet during a time of immense challenges.”—Greg King, author of The Ghost Forest
Read more

The Tree Collectors


Vivian Keh

San Jose, California

When Vivian Keh was a student at the Yale School of Drama, she wrote a play called Persimmons in Winter. “It was about two Korean sisters who survived World War II and the Korean War,” she said. “It was based on my mother’s experience. She went through some very hard times, times of starvation and war. The metaphor is that the sisters are the persimmons. It has always seemed miraculous to me, the idea of a tree producing fruit in winter.”

She planted her first persimmon tree in 2012, after she and her husband moved to a suburban home on a quarter-acre lot in San Jose. Persimmons are categorized into astringent and non-astringent types; she grew both the non-astringent ‘Fuyu’ type, which produces flat, squat fruits that can be eaten when they’re still firm, and the astringent ‘Saijo’ variety that can’t be eaten until fully ripened. “Those are the ones my elders are familiar with,” she said. “You bring them home from the market and then wait until they get really soft before you eat them. They remember these from when they were young. This was their sweet! They would also eat them dried with a cast over the skin from all the sugar coming out. That’s a delicacy. And there’s something about feeding oneself something sweet when you’ve been through starvation. It means a lot to them.”

Vivian recalls that in Korean culture, persimmons are a Buddhist symbol of transformation, shared in celebrations and placed on altars and grave sites to honor the dead. But to her, persimmons signify her connection to nature and to her family.

One fruit tree led to another, and now she has fifty trees, including citrus, quince, apricot, and medlar, an apple relative that also can’t be eaten until it’s so soft that it almost appears rotten. But the persimmons are the centerpiece of her collection, and a sort of spiritual force in her home orchard.

“The ‘Saijo’ persimmon I planted—there’s something special happening around that tree,” she said. “There’s energy around it. I feel like there’s some connection to my ancestors, to the ones I never knew, even to the ones who’ve been forgotten. All I know is I feel really good when I’m hanging out around that tree. I talk to it, and I thank it.”

The experience of living with these trees has helped her to reckon with the past, and with the whispered recollections of her elders that she struggles to understand. “I think maybe a couple generations back, some hard choices had to be made. Choices like, do I save my son or my daughter? What I think happened, maybe in my great-grandfather’s generation, is that two girls were left to die. And even though I don’t know their names, I think about them. Because they mattered. They’re the ones I talk to when I talk to that tree. It might sound crazy, but you know, that branch, the original branch that all these grafts came from, it came from Asia. And here we are together in my backyard.”

Every winter, as the persimmons ripen, she packs up boxes of them and mails them to her relatives. “Being a child of immigrants, relationships can get complicated. One way I feel like I can offer a gesture of love is by giving my elders these fruits that they adore. It keeps me connected to them. Now it isn’t enough to send one box to my mother. She wants more! I’m sending her three boxes a year.”

It also connects her to a community of passionate fruit tree growers. “You see these T-shirts that say ‘Introverted but willing to discuss books’? That’s me. Introverted but willing to discuss fruit trees.” Every year, she meets up with other fruit tree enthusiasts for an exchange of scion wood, the thin branches used for grafting. Thanks to those exchanges, she’s grafted as many as fifteen persimmon varieties onto one tree.

“I love starting with small trees and just pruning them and working with them,” she said. “They grow with you, and you help them to grow into the beautiful shapes they have the potential to become. I want to grow old with these trees, so I keep the canopies low. I hope to keep harvesting this fruit into my eighties. Fruit trees are just amazing—they give us so much for so little.”

Lately that good feeling has mattered more than ever. “There’s so much that really disgusts me about our society right now,” she said. “There’s all this Asian hate crime that we’re seeing. It’s really depressing. But when I harvest these persimmons, and I put them on the cutting board and start cutting . . . ​it’s such a pleasure. And I start singing! They really do make me sing. Growing fruit trees is a very simple way to stay in love with our world.”

About the Author

Amy Stewart
Amy Stewart is the New York Times bestselling author of The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants, and several other popular nonfiction titles about the natural world. She’s also written seven novels in her beloved Kopp Sisters series, based on the true story of one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs. She lives in Portland, Oregon. More by Amy Stewart
Decorative Carat