Polly Hill camellia festival brightens up a dreary April

Nancy Weaver, volunteer coordinator and plant recorder, led a guided tour titled, "Camellia's and More." — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Saturday dawned raw and grey and the flowers did not cooperate fully, but about 20 people enjoyed a walk through the grounds of Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury to see what early spring blooms could be spied around the 70-acre garden.0

Nancy Weaver, volunteer coordinator and plant recorder, led a guided tour titled “Camellias and More.” The press release promised “a sight for winter-weary eyes!” Although only a small percentage of the camellia bushes were in bloom, there were plenty of other unexpected spots of color to be found to brighten up the day.

Winter hazels, bushes with pale yellow blossoms that resemble a more subtle forsythia but have a strong scent, greeted guests in front of the Visitors Center and at other places around the grounds. The flowers of Persian Ironwood — such a dark red that they almost blend in with their foliage — could be spotted around the property. Patches of a lavender ground cover, Glory of the Snow, made a wonderful soft-hued carpet under the pale, now leafless Stewartia trees, and a small cherry tree on the verge of full bloom added a splash of bright pink to the surroundings.

Although not in full splendor, the camellias that were blooming presented impressive bright red flowers and there was the occasional dark pink bloom peeping out from among a few of the shrub’s lush dark green foliage. The arboretum also has some white varieties. All should be in bloom by now.

Ms. Weaver suggested passerby take a peek when driving by the arboretum’s stone walls during the next few weeks to see two brilliant pink/red shrubs.

Camellias are prized for their evergreen leaves and their blooming schedule. Polly Hill has both winter varieties that flower late in the year — November and December — and April varieties that are among the earliest bloomers in the spring. In total, the arboretum has 36 shrubs around the grounds as well as some small plants that they have started in pots. The majority are of the species Camellia japonica.

The camellias at Polly Hill are a long way from their native land. The impressive flowering shrubs are native to eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia. Given their eastern pedigree, camellias in this country are mostly found in southern climes.

“Not many people know that you can grow them here,” Ms. Weaver said. However, amateur horticulturist Polly Hill, the founder of the arboretum, was known for experimenting with non-native species to see what could be cultivated in this part of the Northeast.

Camellias, along with the other flowering shrubs — azaleas and magnolias — are among the genera that Ms. Hill was particularly interested in introducing to the Vineyard. “Polly just loved to experiment,” said Ms. Weaver, “She joined the Camellia Society and traded seeds and cuttings with people.”

Ms. Hill spent 50 years experimenting with plants on the grounds, which were originally her private property before the area became public in 1997. Starting when she was already 50 years old, Ms. Hill had a number of successes and is well-known and respected in her field.

She originally tried introducing camellia plants with cuttings she obtained from the famed Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Most of those original plants died, although a few make up the current collection.

Undaunted, Ms. Hill sent away for seeds from Japan, requesting varieties from a parallel climate and specifically seeds from high elevations to guarantee their hardiness. Her persistence paid off: almost all of the camellias seen at the arboretum today are from those Japanese seeds which were planted in 1960. There are also a few survivors from the Longwood experiment and from the National Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C.

Collections management intern Emily Ellingson, who assisted Ms. Weaver in the guided walk, will be focusing on the plants along the Camellia Border during her nine-month internship with Polly Hill. Ms. Hill was meticulous about numbering and cataloging all of the plants on the property and Ms. Ellingson has been engaged in the painstaking process of going through all of the original file cards, identifying plants and comparing notes.

Recently Ms. Ellingson was able for the first time to attach a name to one of the camellia plants found on the property. Apparently, at the time that Ms. Hill started the shrub from one of the domestic cuttings, the fate of the species was uncertain and it had not been officially designated. In 2010, the plant with magnificent double pink flowers was given the designation Camelia japonica “Anacostia.”

“For us plant geeks, this is huge,” said Ms. Weaver. “I think Emily will be making other similar discoveries.”

The unusual camellia variety can now be officially identified in the arboretum’s records and on the system of signs that list the genus, species, common name, and year of introduction of many of the plants. The sign system helps visitors learn about many of the arboretum’s collection of 1,700 plants, including the 80-plus cultivars that Ms. Hill introduced to the area.

The arboretum hosts a monthly guided walk during the winter and a number of workshops, talks and other events in the spring and summer months. “We want people to understand that this is a four-season place,” executive director Tim Boland said.

On the evening of Thursday, April 18, amateur astronomer Barbara Caseau will give a talk, Discovering the Sprouting Grass Moon, that will include viewing the moon through a telescope, legends and stories.

The talk depends on clear skies. Please call 508-693-9426 for reservations. Mr. Boland said Ms Caseau’s first talk last fall, during which she pointed out many constellations during the Harvest moon, was a very popular addition to the arboretum’s roster of plant and nature related events.

For more information go to pollyhillarboretum.org.