John Barry grew up in Boston, met and married his wife Pat in Boston, and worked in Boston, but he says he never saw foliage until he was 30 years old. It was not until he and Pat took a vacation in Gill that his love affair with trees began.
After the two of them came to Gill on vacation and found it to be beautiful and quiet, they bought and built on five acres of clear land in 1973. Then the came the day when the city seemed too noisy and dirty, and they moved to Gill full time.
The Christmas Tree Farm Came First
Barry worked in insurance but for 20 years he also had a Christmas tree farm. Remnants of those Christmas trees still stand. Then the Barry children grew up, went to college and moved away. “I sold the last of the Christmas trees at a church sale. I loved growing and shearing the Christmas trees, but I hated cutting them down,” he said.
He had enjoyed the visitors who came to cut down their own trees, like the man who arrived with four sled dogs, and a sled, to experience the way they did things in the old days.
With new room on his acreage Barry began planting many other kinds of trees, creating his own arboretum, his own museum of trees. He took me on a tour beginning with the Seven Son Flower. One of these grows on the Bridge of Flowers, but I never seemed to be on the Bridge when it was blooming. That is understandable when Barry explained that this tree blooms after Labor Day, “no matter when Labor day falls.” he said. “The blossoms are white and the Monarch butterflies love them. Then the white petals fall off and the calyx turns crimson. Many people then think that the tree blooms twice.”
We walked past a large Norway spruce, and a concolor fir. Concolor means two colors, a name that suits this fir because it is not true green and seems to have a white dusting. “It grows very slowly,” Barry said.
Then we arrived at three chestnut trees that were not affected by the blight that has decimated American chestnut trees. Barry explained that until about 1900 eastern United States had billions of beautiful chestnut trees. It was the predominant tree of our forests. The nuts fed wildlife and farm animals during the winter. The beautiful wood was used for everything from fence posts to fine furniture. It was an essential tree.
Then Chinese chestnut trees were imported. Chinese trees carried the blight Cryphonectria parasitica but were immune. Ultimately almost all American chestnut trees died.
Nowadays chestnut trees are being back-bred to create trees that are immune. Many people are working on this problem. The hope is to get the trees to be 98 percent American and only 2 percent Chinese. Barry’s trees are looking healthy and he has hopes that they will stay that way.
We continued walking and came to a Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. This tree was thought to be extinct until it was discovered growing in a spot in the Szechwan province of China in 1941 by a Chinese forester. Seeds made their way to the United States in 1947 after the war. This tree is not known to grow naturally in any other place but now it grows in arboreteums and personal gardens in zones 4-8 in slightly acid soil. It also likes wet sites.
Barry planted his tree about 15 years and it has grown rapidly. Like the larch tree, the Dawn Redwood’s needles turn yellow in the autumn and then fall off.
Nearby is a young gingko tree. This tree is also native to China and grows in zones 4-9 here. The gingko is interesting for its fan shaped leaves that turn gold in the fall. And then one night, when it has been cold, all the leaves will drop at once. We had gingko trees in Heath. We enjoyed waking up one morning to see our ginkgos in the center of a golden circles
Barry and I continued our walk, past large hydrangeas and a beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. Beautyberry has small pink/purple flowers in the spring and very unusual, and beautiful violet berries in the fall.
Shrubs have a place in Barry’s arboretum. He is also a man who likes to experiment. He took me to two rows of small hydrangeas which he said are becoming very popular. They are more suitable for small gardens and urban neighborhoods.
He has planted eight small paniculata hydrangeas including the Diamond Rouge which will grow to 4-5 feet tall. The flowers will begin in shades of white, but become pink and finally a rosy red. Paniculata hydrangeas bloom on new wood and can be pruned in winter or early spring.
There is always work to do in the arboreteum but he does sometimes sit out among the trees, resting and enjoying them. He told me that one day he was sitting down “when just six or eight feet from me a bobcat popped out. He moved right beside me, and then left. Another time a bobcat walked only four feet away. He didn’t see me at first, but then he did the Michael Jackson moonwalk, and walked away. I did notice that there was no sign of chipmunks or squirrels in that area.”
As we finished our walk I could not help thinking of the British gardener and landscape architect, Russell Page. In his memoir, Education of a Gardener, he said, “To plant trees is to give body and life to one’s dreams of a better world.” I think he is right and I thank John Barry for his arboretum.
Between the Rows October 12, 2019