Polly Hill; Prolific Cultivator, Creator

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

Polly Hill, 100, a horticulturist who introduced more than 60 shrubs and trees to U.S. gardens, died April 26 at her home in Hockessin, Del., of congestive heart failure.

From what was originally her family's 70-acre sheep farm on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., she developed extensive trial beds of azaleas, camellias, hollies and other ornamentals.

She was known for extensive record-keeping of plant traits and was one of the first private gardeners in the country to computerize her records. That won the admiration of scientist and philanthropist David H. Smith, who arranged the purchase of the property and its development as the Polly Hill Arboretum. Opened to the public in 1998, it draws approximately 15,000 visitors a year.

Her husband, Julian Hill, once called his wife's trial gardens "Polly's playpen," and it was there that she ruthlessly selected the best cultivated varieties from hundreds of seedlings.

Perhaps her most significant contribution was a series of azaleas named North Tisbury. She registered and introduced almost 20 varieties, which are valued for their low growing and spreading habit, hardiness and performance in shade gardens. Three were named after her children.

She introduced 17 varieties of stewartia trees and selected new magnolias, crab apples, dogwoods and the native American winterberry.

Mrs. Hill didn't begin her horticulture career in earnest until she turned 50. She graduated in the 1920s from Vassar College as a music major and in 1928 spent a year in a Tokyo women's college teaching. While there, she developed an interest in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging and, on returning to the United States, wrote a book on the subject.

Mrs. Hill, who was born Mary Louisa Butcher in Ardmore, Pa., later studied botany at the University of Delaware.

She returned to Japan in 1954, on a trip to treat her son, Jefferson, and while there met a Japanese azalea breeder named Tsuneshige Rokujo. He sent seeds and plants from his own breeding program, and Mrs. Hill grew them on Martha's Vineyard for stringent evaluation, said Timothy Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum.

Boland said her career has proven an inspiration to other women who see "somebody at the midpoint of her life who's going to do something they always wanted to."

Jefferson Hill said his mother continued to play the piano through much of her life. His father played the violin. "They liked to play duets," he said.

Her husband, a scientist at DuPont who was a co-inventor of nylon, died in 1996.

In addition to her son, of Washington, survivors include two children, Joseph Hill of Radnor, Pa., and Louisa Coughlin of Philadelphia; a brother; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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