Less than a minute from the Cony rotary, which flings traffic through Maine’s state capital as if by centrifugal force, an emerald sanctuary is in full spring bloom, perfumed with the heady fragrance of lilacs and viburnum and stippled with crimson, gold, and lavender blossoms. Though state workers on lunch break and horticulturists conducting research regularly tread its paths, the Viles Arboretum has largely been Augusta’s secret for more than a quarter-century.
That is about to change. The arboretum is in the midst of a makeover that promises the gentlest impact on its forests, meadows, and ponds, while inviting more visitors to enjoy them in more ways. “One of the benefits of having 224 acres is that if you want solitude, you will still find the places that offer it here,” Executive Director Jay Adams says. “You won’t lose that experience now that we are offering chestnut festivals, rhododendron parties, and walks to listen to frogs and cicadas.”
Known as the Pine Tree State Arboretum since its founding in 1982, the landscape’s new name honors its principal benefactor, Augusta’s effervescent philanthropist Elsie Viles, and, Adams hopes, dispels the common misimpression that the arboretum is a state facility. The land on which it sits is state-owned — it once supported a farm serving the Maine Insane Hospital (now Riverview Psychiatric Center) — but the arboretum itself is a nonprofit organization largely supported by its three hundred members.
The new name signals more significant changes as well, beginning with the arrival of Adams five months ago. The director of Old Fort Western for twenty-three years, Adams is overseeing the arboretum’s administrative side, which has freed up former director Stephen Oliveri to manage and improve two dozen tree and plant collections and six miles of trails (Oliveri previously performed both jobs). Part-time education director Toni Pied, meanwhile, is offering the arboretum’s most robust program of events ever, including birding festivals, outdoor painting workshops, and those frog and cicada walks. “These programs will give folks who have walked through in the past an opportunity to expand their knowledge with a dedicated experience, and they will raise the public consciousness about the arboretum,” Adams says. The goal, he adds, is to make Viles Arboretum Maine’s leading resource for tree and plant collections and study.
By far the largest arboretum in Maine (others include the ten-acre Fay Hyland Arboretum at the University of Maine in Orono and campus arboreta at both UMaine and the University of Southern Maine-Gorham), Viles is still a youngster. “Some people hear the word ‘arboretum’ and expect a place like Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum,” Stephen Oliveri says. “The Arnold is one hundred and fifty years old and it has big, old trees with a lot of character. We have some nice trees, but in terms of maturity they are not outstanding. They will be someday. Our planting horizon is one hundred years. The people who come here one hundred years from now will appreciate this place in a different way than we do now.”
A gift from Harvard, in fact, is the genesis of one of the Viles’ main attractions: the largest collection of hostas in Maine. Back in 1992, at the Arnold’s invitation, members of the Maine Hosta Society dug up more than one hundred hostas from the Case Estates in Weston, Massachusetts, and transplanted them to Augusta. Today the collection comprises two hundred varieties and roughly three hundred hosta clumps flourishing in the dappled light of a white birch grove, a favorite spot for weddings.
The hostas and a stunning rock garden tended by the Maine Cooperative Extension’s master gardeners lend a bit of botanical gardening to the arboretum’s mission, but the primary focus is woody plants — trees and shrubs — which are organized into collections, each with its own reason for being. The native plant collection, for example, dramatically showcases often overlooked choices for a Maine home landscape, such as yellow birch, which has a distinctive smooth bronze bark that peels in papery strips, and sweet birch, which emits a wintergreen fragrance when its leaves are crushed or twigs broken. The purpose is not to merely provide ideas for a pretty yard. “Native plants are better for the environment because they lessen the need for pesticides and fertilizers, and you don’t introduce invasive species,” Oliveri says. “Our thought is that if we educate homeowners about these plants, it will increase demand for them. At the same time, we’ve assembled only plants that are commercially available at greenhouses and nurseries so people aren’t going out in the woods to dig them up.”
Some collections, such as the American chestnut plantation, exist for species preservation. One of the most abundant tree species in pre-settlement eastern United States, the American chestnut was all but wiped out by chestnut blight in the early 1900s. With the American Chestnut Foundation, which aims to restore the species to its native range, the arboretum is developing hybrid disease-resistant varieties.
The Viles Pond Trail, a one-mile loop, offers a good introduction to the arboretum’s diverse landscape, skirting a sun-drenched heirloom apple orchard and lilac grove before meandering through the white birch alley to a forest dotted with surprises, like pastel masses of heathers and phloxes in the rock garden and blazing magenta and orange blooms in a streamside copse of rhododendrons and azaleas. Along the way are curious artifacts from the farm that served as the state hospital from 1840 to 1972. Near Viles Pond, a stone foundation and a fencelike maze of rusted metal pipes is all that remains of a lucrative three-story piggery, where hogs were bred and raised for sale across the state. (Some Augusta old timers still refer to the property as “the piggery,” according to a sign at the site.) The outdoor Johnson Outdoor Learning Center, where schoolchildren gather before and after their tours, sits in a deep grassy depression that was once a cistern in an elaborate waterworks.
The mix of habitats makes for fine wildlife watching. “It’s a good warbler spot in the spring,” says Adams, who discovered the arboretum through his interest in bird watching several years ago. “You can see fifteen or sixteen different species on the right day. Otherwise, the birds you typically find in this area of Maine are here, but it’s one-stop shopping — you can see grassland birds, upland birds, piney woods birds, marsh birds, and waterfowl in one visit.”
The point, says Adams, is that while the arboretum’s core mission is scholarly and scientific, visitors explore the grounds on their own terms. “You know the expression, ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees,’ as if one gets in the way of the other?” Adams says. “The Viles Arboretum has an almost museum function in the collections, but it’s also a place where you can be in the woods if that’s the experience you’re looking for. Whether you want to learn more or whether you want to forget everything for a short time, the arboretum leads you where you want to go. You can see both the forest and the trees.”
If You Go:Viles Arboretum is located at 153 Hospital Street (State Route 9) in Agusta. Admission is free. For details on the plant collections and an events calendar, visit vilesarboretum.org or phone 207-626-7989.