Visitors to Viles Arboretum in Augusta on a guided bird walk. Among several new initiatives, the arboretum has renovated the visitor center, improved boardwalks and planted a ‘Forest of the Future.’ Photo by Bethany Drouin

Viles Arboretum in Augusta is planting the “forest of the future.”

Ryan Martin, who became executive director in June 2020, used that phrase to describe a grove of climate-zone-pushing trees slated to be planted at the arboretum later this year. Site preparation has already begun.

“The climate is clearly warming, and we are going to plant these species that don’t grow here now to see how they fare,” Martin said.

The new trees are being tested because many of Maine’s native trees are in danger, from both the warmer weather and also a variety of invasive pests – including, but not limited to, the emerald ash borer, hemlock woolly adelgid and winter moth; the last targets many hardwoods, but especially oaks.

The demonstration site at Viles will be up to four acres, and the plan is to include 10 trees each of 14 tree species. Exactly which species have yet to be determined, but possibilities include chestnut oak, white oak, black oak, sweetgum, tulip poplar, black walnut, shagbark hickory, hackberry, blackgum (tupelo), American chestnut, American elm, American beech, Eastern red cedar, American persimmon, American holly sycamore, sweetbay magnolia, cucumber magnolia, sourwood, redbud, sassafras, spicebush and pawpaw.

When the arboretum schedules the date of the plantings, it will announce the days on its website, vilesarboretum.org. Volunteer workers will be welcome.

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The arboretum has an interesting history: The property is owned by the state. Beginning in 1835, the state purchased the land and used it as a farm, supplying food and, in some cases, work opportunities for the state hospital, formerly called the Augusta Mental Health Institute and now Riverview Psychiatric Center. In 1981, the Maine Forest Service began creating the arboretum by planting trees and building trails on the land. Shortly thereafter, state officials determined that overseeing an arboretum was not what the Forest Service was designed to do. A nonprofit group was formed to run what was then called the Pine Tree State Arboretum. In 2010, the name was changed to honor William Payson Viles and Elsie Pike Viles, an Augusta couple who were longtime volunteers and financial benefactors of the arboretum.

The site encompasses 224 acres, with many miles of hiking trails and a variety of plant collections, including hostas, heritage apples, chestnuts, lilacs, larches, conifers, maples and even some pines planted from seeds that traveled to space!

Martin said that the arboretum had some problems in the recent past when the number of paid workers dwindled to two people. Six staff members are now on board.

Improvements at the arboretum sped up when the COVID epidemic hit, and people were eager to get outdoors during lockdowns. While cleaning up its buildings, the staff discovered snowshoes and cross-country skiing equipment. They cleaned up the gear and began renting it out.

The arboretum now has community vegetable gardens, offers a summer day camp that served 75 children last year, and offers other regular programs for children. It recently renovated the visitor center and now has an unheated meeting space where meetings can be held nine months a year. The arboretum recently received a $159,000 grant to improve the boardwalks that convey visitors over wetlands on the property. Other trail improvements are underway, Martin said.

The Maine Conservation Corps removes invasive plants at Vile Arboretum during Volunteer Day. Photo by Lauren Kircheis

Unfortunately, the property has a lot of invasive species, with Asiatic bittersweet especially prevalent. Martin said the staff is working on combating the invasive plants, but such efforts take time and money. Over the past couple of years, staff and volunteers cleared invasive species from the site of the new Forest of the Future and from older organized gardens on the property. Their goal is to clear 15 acres of the arboretum’s wilder woods of invasive plants each year. Doing that, and keeping the tenacious, troublesome plants from coming back, will keep them busy.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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