Along came Polly

The Polly Hill Arboretum celebrates 20 years of preserving precious plants.

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The Polly Hill Arboretum celebrates its 20th anniversary this week with a plethora of games and activities. The Times had a chance to meet up with executive director Tim Boland to reflect on what 20 years of horticulture has done for the Island, and what 20 more years hold for the future.

Boland took The Times on a walk through the arboretum’s grounds, casually stopping by different trees to recite facts and histories, and pointing out monarch butterflies among the many plants, easily missed by an untrained eye.

Boland has been with the arboretum since 2002, when he came on as the first curator of collections. He helped select plants from along the Eastern United States from Maine to the panhandle in Florida. Two years later, he became the executive director.

One of Boland’s specialties as a plant taxonomist is oaks. He said he likes to study the trees because they support more life of insects, fungi, microorganisms. “Oaks are kind of like the pillars that hold up the temperate world in terms of all the life they support,” he said.

The arboretum sends staff members to Alabama, southeast Georgia, Kentucky, and even Japan and Korea. This will be the third year the arboretum has sent out an expedition to Japan to collect plants. “All of these plants have a history,” Boland said. “What we do is go to its source.”

Located in West Tisbury, the 70-acre plot of diverse flora was originally purchased in 1669 from Josias, the Indian Sachem of Takemmy. Fast-forward some 280 years, and the land was inherited by Polly Hill, who would begin planting trees and other plants in 1957, never expecting her farm to become a public arboretum.

A pivotal meeting for the arboretum came in 1996 when Dr. David Smith met Hill at the then 60-acre farm. Dr. Smith was an accomplished researcher and conservationist who heard about Hill through the Vineyard Conservation Society. The two hit it off as soon as they met. As they strolled the grounds, Smith stopped and asked about a certain tree that had massive flowers and leaves. Immediately, Hill — 92 years young — rattled off facts and statistics on the ‘Julian Hill’ Magnolia, named after Hill’s husband Julian, including where and when she got it, how she grew it, and exactly how old it was. Dr. Smith, impressed with her breadth of knowledge, asked how she knew all of that. Hill casually told him all her plants has been logged into a database since 1972. At that time, Hill was known as the first private individual to computerize her plant records.

When Smith saw the records, he was amazed. Hill was doing genetic engineering, growing plants from all over the world. She had named more than 60 different varieties that were unique to the plant world. Smith found Hill to be observing, recording, and making discoveries — exactly what he had been doing his whole life.

The land that had been in Hill’s family was then sold to Smith’s Cedar Tree Foundation, which established a founding board, built the visitors center, and hired full-time staff. “There’s a lot of serendipity and just incredible energy that happened here that led to its preservation,” Boland said. “It’s really turned into something, personally, beyond my belief at this stage in my career.” Totaling 70 acres today, the arboretum features an expansive collection of flora in separate destinations.

Hill’s “Playpen” is a 286-foot-long garden that is completely fenced in to keep out rabbits and deer. Inside, Hill’s famous North Tisbury azaleas, and other plants such as lilac daphne, and Oconee bells, grow alongside shrubs and trees.

Boland also highlighted several of the iconic plants that adorn the landscape, including silky stewartia, an endangered tree in its native Southeast North America; dawn redwood, a deciduous conifer planted by Hill in 1959; sassafras, a fragrant tree native to the Island; dove tree, a tree with white, dove-like bracts; tulip tree, of which the arboretum has three, the largest being planted in 1958; and monkey puzzle, a living fossil native to Chile threatened by habitat loss and invasive species.

A large part of the arboretum’s mission is education. Over the past 20 years, every K-4 grade school student on the Island has taken field trips to the arboretum, for a total of 20,000, by Boland’s estimates.

The education doesn’t stop with young children. The arboretum has an internship program to teach interns how to sow seed, take cuttings, and identify different plant species. The arboretum also teaches classes on plant diversity to high school students.

“Saving plants, educating people about plants, and getting people to understand plants are so critical to our livelihood,” Boland said.

Along with its impressive collection of plants, the arboretum boasts several structures it uses as housing, conference rooms, office space, and lecture halls.

The first building upon entering the arboretum is the tall and open visitor center. Barb Caseau, one of more than 90 volunteers who help run the arboretum, sat at the front desk and spoke about her time at the arboretum. “We are so loved here as volunteers,” she said.

The far barn, originally built in 1855, was restored by a barn archaeologist in 2009, and is where the arboretum holds lectures. The barn even features an owl box, made by Hill’s nephew, that houses a barn owl.

Hill’s house still sits on the property, and was renovated in 2008 to include a one-bedroom apartment where visiting lecturers or researchers can stay, and a large library donated by former founding executive director Steven Spongberg.

In 2009 the arboretum built a house that functions as a lunch room, has lockers for volunteers, a tool garage, offices for full-time staff, and “the national collection of dibbers,” Boland joked of the large collection of pointed wooden sticks used to plant seeds and bulbs. “Thousands flock to see it,” he added.

The greenhouse, built in 2007, works on several levels. “It gives us the ability to do lots of things. It’s an educational facility, and it’s a science and experimental facility,” Boland said.

Inside, staffers tend to a diverse set of plants, including stewartias, Turk’s cap lily, a New England blazing star, and a rare oak from the Ozarks, just to name just a few. “It’s really important for us to get involved in the preservation of local plants,” Boland said. Many of the plants in the greenhouse are grown to sell at the arboretum’s plant sale. Much of the arboretum’s principal revenue comes from major donors, foundations, grants, memberships, and the plant sale.
This Saturday, July 28, the arboretum will hold its 20th anniversary celebration. Games, activities, and live music will all be provided free of charge. Dinner will be available to purchase from the Food Truck, in conjunction with Offshore Ale. The arboretum encourages families to bring picnics, lawn chairs, and blankets.

Several events are scheduled from 3 to 7 pm — a children’s scavenger hunt, a photo booth, lawn games, crafts, a children’s concert with the Island band the Pinkletinks, and a concert with the Pickpocket Bluegrass Band.

With a successful 20 years behind them, the arboretum has its sights set on maintaining Hill’s vision of planting from seed. With more than 1,700 different types of plants, the arboretum wants to continue to grow and preserve plants that have struggled to grow in the wild.

“I hope that the soul of the landscape remains the same, really following Polly’s tenets of how she’s established the garden,” Boland said.

Continuing the arboretum’s educational programs is of the utmost importance, too. Boland said he would also like to see more Island kids go through the arboretum training and internships, and hopefully stay on the Island. This year, the arboretum has established a program called “Habitat Kids,” where children plant native meadows and learn about horticulture.

Looking ahead, Boland said he wants the arboretum to stay mission-driven and within the vernacular of the landscape.

“We grow trees to tell the stories they can’t tell themselves,” he said.