A mid-Atlantic magnolia makes it on Martha’s Vineyard

Listen to this exotic description of a tree, “When encountered, it symbolizes more than any other tree, that lost and pre-Columbian America, that lush, sweet, upland sylva of the South, that was seen in its days of innocent perfection by those first lucky explorers Bartram, Fraser, and Michaux.” Donald Peattie, author of “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America,” is writing about a big-leafed magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla.

Would you expect to find a tree like this here on Martha’s Vineyard? No? Of course not! But thanks to the curiosity and innovation of Polly Hill, you can. And even better, this rare magnolia, named in honor of Polly’s husband, Julian Hill, is coming into bloom right now at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.

Ms. Hill described Magnolia macrophylla ‘Julian Hill’ as “Too tropical for words for Martha’s Vineyard” and it is. The tree has gigantic, 18-inch, fragrant, white flowers and banana leaves almost two feet long — the largest flowers of any deciduous tree, according to Tim Boland, executive director of the arboretum.

Ms. Hill inherited Barnard’s Inn Farm, which we now known as the Polly Hill Arboretum (PHA), from her parents in 1957 when she was 50 years old. She had studied botany and horticulture at the University of Maryland in the late 1940s and with the support of her husband, she was determined to make something of the place.

In Ms. Hill’s view, the Vineyard was “poverty-stricken horticulturally,” and she wanted to try to introduce new plants here. She grew all her plants from seed and everything she seeded was carefully documented. Successes as well as failures were recorded in meticulous detail.

A native of Delaware, where she made her winter home, Ms. Hill especially liked experimenting with warm-weather plants to see if they could survive in the cold climate of West Tisbury. Trying to grow an exotic big-leafed magnolia was just the kind of challenge she liked. Her records tell us that she received a single magnolia fruit from a friend in Delaware in 1960. By May of 1961 she had eight seedlings, two of which she planted.

One of the seedlings of Magnolia macrophylla took. Ms Hill had planted it alongside a stonewall in a sheltered area of the arboretum where it was both protected from wind and nourished by the wall itself. According Mr. Boland, the walls act as a kind of mulch for the tree by condensing moisture and keeping the root zone of the magnolia moist. In its early years two big oaks protected the tree. Later these were removed to give the big-leafed magnolia more air and light.

The first surprise was that the tree survived this far north. The second surprise was that it flowered after only nine years and in Ms. Hill’s words it was “an excellent parent.” Most magnolias take 15 to 20 years to produce flowers and fruit. She thought the tree was unique enough to be registered, and she wanted to name it after her husband, Julian Hill, who liked its big white flowers.

Selecting and naming an introduction is not simple. The plant must be registered with the proper authorities and detailed forms must be filled out, describing what makes the plant unique. Once this is done, the information is reviewed to make sure the characteristics are, indeed, special, and that the name has not been previously used.

Magnolia macrophylla ‘Julian Hill’ passed the test and was officially accepted as an introduction. On September 4, 1982 Polly invited a small group family and friends to her farm for a naming ceremony. It was Julian’s 87th birthday and the tree was 21.

Tim Boland credits the Julian Hill magnolia for the very existence of the Polly Hill Arboretum. As Ms. Hill aged, there was talk of what would happen to her life’s work but no plan. Brendan O’Neill of the Vineyard Conservation Society introduced her to the late Dr. David Smith, a scientist who was interested in preserving land on the Vineyard. Looking at her plants, labels and record keeping, Dr. Smith realized Polly was truly a scientist. Standing in front of the Julian Hill magnolia, he told Ms. Hill, “I want to preserve this place.”

Ms. Hill actively participated in the transition of her farm from home to public institution. She continued to grow seedlings from Magnolia macrophylla ‘Julian Hill’, and gave some of them away. Ian Brew, now in high school, was given a seedling when he was in the 2/3rd grade at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School; it is growing at his family home in Vineyard Haven. Terre Young of Lambert’s Cove also received one. If you were the recipient of a seedling from the ‘Julian Hill’ magnolia, please call the Polly Hill Arboretum and let them know.

A life-long needlepointer, Polly Hill completed her last needlepoint pillow just before her 100th birthday in 2007. It is an image of the Julian Hill magnolia. What a fitting finale. This tree embodied her 65-year marriage to Julian, her passion for botany, and it also marked the spot where the seed of the Polly Hill Arboretum was first planted and took root.

If you go.… Polly Hill Arboretum is located on State Road in West Tisbury. The grounds are open daily from sunrise to sunset, year-round. The visitors’ center is open from 9:30 am to 4 pm, daily until mid-October. The suggested donation is $5. Free to members and children under 12. For more information, call 508-693-9426.