Snowdrop clusters and barely-there hyacinth blooms are sprouting off the paths at the Polly Hill Arboretum, but on Saturday afternoon it wasn’t just the flowers that interested the small group walking the grounds.
Nancy Weaver, plant recorder and volunteer coordinator at the arboretum, was conducting an edible trees tour throughout the campus.
“Our mission isn’t edible plants,” she explained at the start of the tour. “But we do have some.”
Many of those plants are native to the Vineyard and can be found outside the Polly Hill grounds. Ms. Weaver pointed to tall blueberry bushes on the visitor center path. Blueberries thrive here, she said, with a little help from bees. But with winter just retreating from the Vineyard, the visitor center bushes were still a long way from putting out their tiny berries.
“Polly had cultivar blueberries, which have bigger fruit,” Ms. Weaver said, referring to the late Polly Hill, the legendary botanist who built the arboretum more than half a century ago by growing trees, shrubs and flowers from seeds to develop hardiness.
A distant cousin of the blueberry — same family, different genus — grew near some picnic tables further down the path: the dangleberry, so named because its fruit hangs down from the branch. The berry resembles a huckleberry in both appearance and textures: it is seedier than a blueberry.
Ms. Weaver led the group past an American beech tree, a sassafras grove and a white oak tree. Like the dangleberry, the three species were all natives of the property and had been left in place as other non-natives were planted around them.
Tea can be made from sassafras roots and its small leaves are used as an ingredient in gumbo. Beech nuts, their husks scattered around the base of the tree, are also edible, as are acorns from oaks. Acorns from the white oak are thought to be the tastiest, Ms. Weaver said, but they have to be boiled first.
Sumner Silverman and Sally Pierce took particular interest in a grove of pawpaws; they hope to start growing the plant at their own home. The pawpaw grove, planted some 50 years ago, was spindly; the tree needs more moisture to thrive than the Vineyard offers. Pawpaw also needs a friend in order to grow, Ms. Weaver said, since they do not self-pollinate.
Ms. Weaver produced fruit she had collected earlier in the season from an American persimmon tree, and down the way pointed out the sharp, pointy husks of the Chinese chestnut that littered the ground.
“Polly picked them up with leather gloves on,” Ms. Weaver said. The nuts—once the armored husk is broken—can be made into chestnut soup. American chestnuts, also found on the property, are a major source of food for wildlife. They too can be eaten by humans, but mature American chestnut trees are now relatively rare; the species suffered a blight in the early 1900s that it has not yet recovered from. Mr. Silverman pointed out that prior to the blight the chestnut was also the main tree in the American lumber crop.
There is one pecan tree on the Polly Hill grounds, and although it is tall and fully mature — it was planted by Polly’s mother — it has never borne fruit. Ms. Weaver theorized that the climate of the Vineyard might not be hot enough for pecans.
But just across the path from the pecan was a shagbark hickory tree. “We get tons of hickory nuts,” she said. Pecan and hickory, like blueberry and dangleberry, share a genus, but are not in the same family.
As the group moved back towards the visitor center, Ms. Weaver pointed out a walnut tree, which, she recounted with a laugh, was once confused for a lime tree (the edible part of a walnut is enclosed in a round green husk).
The tour ended with a stop at a group of small beach plums, fenced off to protect the young plants from hungry deer. Back at the center, Ms. Weaver had a table of pawpaw cuttings available for participants to take home. It’s never too early to plant a tree.
“You can be thinking and planting now,” Ms. Weaver said. “