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Polly Hill - 1907–2007

Polly Hill, a respected and pioneering horticulturist known for establishing one of the nation’s most renowned arboretums of native and exotic plant species, died April 25, 2007, at the age of 100.1

Polly Hill was born Mary Louisa Butcher on January 30, 1907, in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.2 In 1926, her parents Margaret Keen and Howard Butcher, Jr. bought a 40-acre farm property that would eventually—under Polly’s direction—expand to become a 70-acre arboretum of exotic flora.1 Hill’s keen curiosity for exotic seeds began after she graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with a degree in music and moved to Japan to teach English at a women’s college. While in Japan, she studied traditional Japanese flower arrangement, an art she would teach upon returning to the United States, donning a kimono.

In the 1940s she returned to college to study botany and horticulture at the University of Maryland. She later continued her studies at the University of Delaware.2 In 1957, Polly and her husband Julian Hill took over management of her parents’ farm, and Polly began the transformation from farm to arboretum. “Fifty is a great age to try something new,” Polly would say.3

Hill began gathering and collecting seeds and plant life from different climates across the globe, including Japan and other parts of Asia.1 Her idea was to see which seeds could endure the cold New England winters. Surprisingly, many seeds did survive, turning the small nursery into an arboretum and a beautifully exotic display of botanical diversity.

Today, the Polly Hill Arboretum of West Tisbury, Massachusetts, retains its original mission, continuing to determine which seeds can be cultivated on Martha’s Vineyard, as well as providing sanctuary to those plants threatened by extinction. Plant life that the arboretum is known for include the North Tisbury azalea (Rhododendron hybrida, Ericaceae) and the camellia (Camellia spp., Theaceae).3

Polly Hill is survived by her daughter, Louisa Coughlin, and her two sons, Joseph and Jefferson Hill. She died at Cokesbury Village, her home in Hockessin, Delaware.

—Suzanne Edwards
  1. Hevesi D. Polly Hill is dead at 100; tested hardiness of plants. New York Times. April 30, 2007;A19.

  2. Wells J. Horticulturist Polly Hill dies at age 100. Vineyard Gazette. April 27, 2007. Available at: news/2007/04/27/polly_hill.php. Accessed August 2, 2007.

  3. Polly Hill’s living legacy [press release]. West Tisbury, MA: Polly Hill Arboretum; April 26, 2007.