Revisiting Polly Hill Arboretum

With the onset of winter, I've taken to looking through old photos and reliving fond memories. Unfortunately, some of those fond memories may be permanently lost. In my many moves in recent years, I neglected to buy a back-up hard drive and kept most of my photos on one external hard drive to reduce the clutter on my laptop. This summer that hard drive died. I'm still discovering things that I've lost, such as my hike up Mt. Washington, and many others from my internship at Garden In The Woods, apparently. Fortunately, at least my best photos, if not all my most sentimental, from that internship are preserved in a Facebook album. Most of you, I'm sure, are better at making sure you keep back-ups of your photos and important files, but let this serve as a reminder to those who need it. With digital cameras, there are no negatives from which to reprint photos once lost.

Back to the photos and accompanying memories that I still have, which I think is luckily most of what I lost from my crashed hard drive, minus many from my time in New England and perhaps some from my college campus. One of the field trips I went on as an intern at Garden In the Woods was to Martha's Vineyard and Chappaquiddick, two islands off the coast of Massachusetts. Thankfully I still have those pictures, but not nearly as many as I wish I had taken. One of two gardens we visited on the islands was the famous Polly Hill Arboretum.

A taste of things to come, a Stewartia and dwarf conifers greet you near the entrance.
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, here's a short introduction of the Polly Hill Arboretum from their website: "The Polly Hill Arboretum, a 70-acre public garden, contains the results of Polly Hill’s fifty years of horticultural experimentation. Rare trees and shrubs from around the world are set among stone walls, meadows, and fields, including Polly’s famous North Tisbury azaleas, the national stewartia collection, camellias, clematis, crabapples, magnolias, and many more. The kousa dogwood allee, perennial border, monkey puzzle tree, and the Julian Hill magnolia are favorites with visitors. Polly grew most of her plants from seed and has introduced over 80 cultivars."

The visitor center is a charming and appropriately coastal-looking building.
 The Polly Hill Arboretum is home to a phenomenal collection of trees and shrubs. Like me, Polly had a passion for woody plants, especially rhododendrons, flowering trees, and conifers. At this point, I can only aspire to creating a collection a fraction as magnificent. As a compulsive propagator, though, I can take a page from Polly's playbook and start plants from seed. They're such a cost-saver for the plant addict, and you never know what unique traits a seedling might display. It could be the next introduction on the horticultural market, though more likely you'll just have pride of ownership of a unique specimen. Now I just need to have somewhere to grow all those future seedlings.

I just love Cryptomeria japonica, the fluted trunk and reddish bark so reminiscent of the Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar) I grew up with.

Cones of Cryptomeria japonica have a fascinating structure.

Speaking of structures, I loved this rustic arbor above this seating area. It would be nice to see what it looks like two years later with the clematis planted at the base having gained some height and in full bloom.

New Englanders may lament their rocky soil, but it certainly does provide ample local materials for hardscaping. I loved seeing these dry-stack walls everywhere, covered here by a climbing hydrangea.

While woodies dominate here, a few herbaceous borders injected a bit more summer color into the arboretum.
 One of the major features at Polly Hill is the allee of kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). Unfortunately, we missed the bloom season, but the elegant trees still made a lovely sight. The multi-trunked trees create a beautiful green canopy supported by arches coated in flaking bark.
Green fruit stick up from the leaves like little alien antennae. In fall, these will turn red and produce a beautiful display.

The flaking bark and branch structure of kousa dogwoods makes them attractive regardless of the season, living sculpture that I find more appealing than most man-made (or woman-made) artwork.

A view of the allee from the other side of another dry-stack wall.
 One of my favorite areas of the arboretum was a small fenced area called Polly's Play Pen, a name given to this treasure chest of special plants by Polly's husband, Julian. While I hesitate to draw comparisons between myself and such a famous horticulturist, I feel a sense of kinship with her, as I'm sure many plant geeks would. She was known as a realist and didn't find her life that remarkable, taking her accomplishments for granted. Not that I've accomplished anything on the same level as Polly, but given my own self-effacing tendencies I try to take stories of such people as reminders to occasionally stop and appreciate what I have accomplished. I also see a lesson in the fact that she didn't start the arboretum until she was 50, twice my current age, again keeping in mind that most of the plants in the arboretum were started from seed. People my age sometimes forget that we are just getting started in life and have many years ahead of us to accomplish our goals. I'm not saying we should kick back and relax, but there's no need to feel like failures because we have yet to make our mark on the world, settle down, find our dream job, or whatever your goal is. I need to remember that I have many years left to create my own horticultural wonderland.

Enough philosophy. I wish I had taken more pictures of the play pen, home of many wonderful rhododendrons and dwarf conifers. I remember it was rather dark from being overgrown and a bit hard to take decent pictures with the camera I had at the time, but I think the real reasons for the shortage are that I was too busy ogling the plants, and some part of my mind realized that we had a lot more to see on this field trip and I needed to conserve memory and battery power.

One of the plants in the play pen I deemed worth of a photo was Rhododendron nakaharae 'Fuzzy'. Those hairy leaves just look so cuddly.  

The knuckled trunks of this rhododendron made me think of some many-limbed alien crustacean.
Another of the highlights of Polly Hill's collection is the National Stewartia Collection. We missed the bloom season for most species in the collection, but these trees, like kousa dogwoods, are always attractive.

Luckily, one species of Stewartia was still in bloom. The distinctive purple filaments of Stewartia malacodendron make this species especially unique and beautiful.
 A parting shot of a collection of "dwarf" conifers serves as a reminder that even these plants can eventually become substantial specimens. Just because they grow slowly, doesn't mean they stop growing when they reach the perfect size for your space.

What have you been doing with your winter (technically still late fall)? Do you reminisce with pictures from warmer days, perhaps taking inspiration from them for the future? Are you busy digging through catalogs planning your spring orders?


  1. Eek, hard drive failure, something similar has happened to us before and it's not good. Well, one can always make more memories :) The arboretum looks so serene, calming even and loving that rustic arbour!

    1. Yes, new memories are always good. Polly Hill is a peaceful place. I imagine in spring and early summer there is a lot more color from the many flowering trees and shrubs, but it's wonderful to stroll through later in the season surrounded by green.

  2. Thanks for taking us along your tour down memory lane, Evan. Polly Hill Arboretum looks like a wonderful place to get lost in for several hours, if not days. Here in Southern California, gardening is still in full swing - in fact, fall is our busiest season as it's the best time to plant. And, since my husband and I tore out our front lot, we've go a LOT of area to plant.

    1. I saw your wide shot posts and the new front planting area! It's always exciting to have a new space to design and plant. I was having trouble commenting, finally figured out it was a problem with my settings for cookies, but I've been enjoying gardening vicariously through your "second spring."

  3. Considering you've done without many possible photos this is still a very inspiring post of a place I'd never even considered visiting. As for my winter time tasks things are insanely busy right now, which does take my mind off not being outdoors. Come January I'll be pining to be out there once again.

    1. If you ever happen to be in the area, it's worth the trip! It's a beautiful place with lots of impressive specimens, almost all grown from seed! Glad you're keeping busy!

  4. Sad to hear about the pictures you lost. I would have want to have gotten a good look on all of those. I bet they'd compliment all those strong glimpses of unbridled nature, which you do presented to us. Those were the times where cloud storage would have been a really, really welcome intervention. Anyways, the stuff you do have must be stored in various places and backed-up in various software and media. Thanks for sharing the pictures, by the way! They are amazing. All the best to you!

    Lillian Walker @ Taylor Works


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