Science! and scientists of Martha’s Vineyard

Starting with Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum.

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Tim Boland in the field. Photo Courtesy of Karin Stanley

Retired Stanford professor and West Tisbury resident Paul Levine will contribute this regular column devoted to scientific research taking place today, along with profiles of the Island’s scientists and their work. These will alternate monthly with scientific notes and brief reports of scientific findings either related specifically to the Vineyard or ones that, in his opinion, are of interest to us all.

Michael Faraday, the famous 18th century British scientist and communicator of science to the layman, said of science, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

I came across this saying in 1942. It was inscribed above one of the entrances to a science building at UCLA, where I was taking courses in zoology, botany, and microbiology. I’ve carried Faraday’s words with me ever since, and have always found that he was right. All one has to do is to look back on the modern discovery of antibiotics, the theories of Einstein (his general theory of relativity is celebrating its centennial this month) and the developments in genetics, evolutionary biology, medical science, physics, astronomy, space exploration, chemistry, and more.

On the Vineyard, going back all the way to the latter half of the18th century, there is a rich history of scientific research, still being carried out, by Islanders whose great talent focused on scientific issues that are unique to the Island.

The Polly Hill Arboretum is one of the Vineyard’s most popular attractions, drawing close to 13,000 visitors a year, residents and tourists alike, and features educational and research programs in botanical science.

Tim Boland, Polly Hill’s executive director, is overseeing some exciting new developments in education and research. He and I met in the West Tisbury library one morning recently, in the midst of a rainy windstorm that knocked out the power in several parts of the Island, including the library. The library was officially closed, but we were allowed in, and sat comfortably in the section of periodicals where the only light came from emergency lighting and from the room’s large windows.

Tim came to the arboretum in 2002 as its curator of plant collections, a position he occupied until 2004 when he became executive director. He is a horticulturalist and botanical scientist, having received degrees from Michigan State University, first in landscape ornamental horticulture and then in botany. In describing his education, Tim told me that he was very much influenced by Liberty Hyde Bailey, the renowned late 19th and early 20th century American horticulturalist and botanist who said that a garden fence separates horticulturalists from botanists — the former grow plants and the latter study them. Tim certainly jumped that fence when for his master’s degree in botany he specialized in plant ecology, evolution, and systematics.

Early in his career he became, as he put it, “obsessed” with the classification of oak trees, of which there are several hundred species worldwide. Hybridization among some of them makes them fascinating to study but a challenge for botanists to classify. Through his research identifying oak species from several parts of the world, Tim has joined the small cluster of plant scientists who have met this challenge.

In 1985, when he was a curatorial intern at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, he became interested in ways to root holly plants. In the course of his experimentation, he was invited in 1985 to give a talk at the Holly Society in Philadelphia; it was at that meeting that he first met Polly Hill. It wasn’t until 2003, after his appointment as the arboretum’s curator of plant collections, that they met again.

The lights came on, and the library was filling up with readers, just as Tim was beginning to describe three of the arboretum’s current projects that are in line with its overall mission of maintaining its collections, education, and research.

If you are a plant enthusiast wanting to become acquainted with Island species, you would most likely take a copy of Swanson and Knapp’s “Flora of Martha’s Vineyard” as a field guide as you roam the Island to find and identify each species.

This old-fashioned approach to plant identification may never be replaced for some, but for others it may be replaced by a digitized flora. The heart of this flora is based on GIS (Geographic Information System). GIS will allow for precise determination of where a given plant species is located on a digital map.

In collaboration with Jessica Dixon of the Nature Conservancy, the arboretum is now developing a digital map of the Island for plant scientists that will show the distribution of the Island’s flora with a mere click on the map, using an app on a smartphone.

When completed, the flora will also have web-based and published versions of the flora or field guide that will be available at the arboretum bookstore.

The second project Tim described is the arboretum’s new Education Center and Botany Laboratory. It is currently under construction, made possible by grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Cedar Tree Foundation, and private donations. The new facility will provide an opportunity for our community to gain knowledge of plants and plant conservation through a program of teaching and research.

The arboretum’s educational programs in botanical science will be expanded through classes for middle and high school students, both for beginners and for students seeking advanced, professional courses. It will provide internships in plant identification, plant collection, and techniques for curating plant collections. The center will also allow for expansion that will include year-round adult programs.

The new center will lend additional support to the arboretum’s research programs. Among them are the continual collection and the documentation of native and introduced plant specimens, and preserving them in an enlarged and modern herbarium. Another project is the long-term ecological study of Island oak woodlands, in collaboration with scientists from the Harvard University Forest in Petersham.

We are fortunate to have on our doorstep an institution that gives us the year-round outdoor pleasure of strolling its paths, along with the opportunity to learn about our community of plants through the arboretum’s educational and research programs, all thanks to the foresight of Polly Hill and to the efforts of Tim and his staff.

For more information, pollyhillarboretum.org.