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Women Horticulturists

Women Horticulturists

By Catherine Cooper

While many famous names in horticulture belong to men, throughout the centuries there have been many women who have made notable contributions to the various fields of botany, horticulture and garden design.  Some are well known, others not so, but all have contributed to the world of plants and gardening.  The women below are not the only ones who have made valuable contributions to the horticultural world but are representative of the variety of ways in which women have enhanced this field. 

Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) was of humble origins, but as housekeeper to the French naturalist Philibert Commerson, she was to accompany him on Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s global expedition of discovery.  She made this journey disguised as a man, as women were not permitted on navy ships, and as such she assisted Commerson in his search for new plants.  Her travels took her around the world, while helping Commerson to collect over 6,000 new plants, one of which was the tropical vine we know as bougainvillea.   

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) is still a highly influential horticulturalist and garden designer, whose ideas and gardens continue to have impact on those who admire what can be described as quintessential British gardens.  Working with arts and crafts architects she created a style of planting that owes much to the artistic approach she had to color and form.  By the time of her death, she had designed over 400 gardens and written a number of books.  The gardens at her home, Munstead Wood, Surrey, England have been restored and are open to the public, and it is also possible to visit the one surviving example of her work in the U.S. at The Glebe House, Woodbury, CT.  

Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959) was another talented landscape designer who studied botany and landscape design under the mentorship of Charles Sprague Sargent, as well as drafting, surveying and engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.  She was to become a highly accomplished landscape designer, with about 110 commissions to her name, ranging from private gardens to public parks and even gardens for the White House.  She was one of the eleven founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the only woman among them.  Few of her designs remain today, but Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. is one that is still in existence. 

Isabella Preston (1881-1965) was born in England but emigrated to Canada, where she enrolled in Ontario Agricultural College to study plant breeding.  Her talent for plant breeding was quickly recognized and she was soon working full time at the College.  Her focus was on plants that would be hardy in Canada’s climate, and in 1916 she gained international acclaim for her introduction of the cold hardy hybrid lily George C. Creelman.  Through the course of her career, she was responsible for around 200 plant introductions including lilies, lilacs, crabapples, roses and peonies.  The hardy hybrid lilacs she created were named in her honor Syringa prestoniae, and as late bloomers they extend the lilac season. 

Lynden Miller is a garden designer, author and advocate for public gardens.  In 1982 she was invited to help in the restoration of the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, NYC.  Undertaking the fund raising herself and with the help of volunteers she turned the neglected space into a space where city dwellers could connect with nature.  Since the success of that project, she has worked to renovate several public parks and spaces in New York City as well as on the campuses of Princeton and Columbia Universities.  After 9/11 she worked with the Commissioner of NYC Parks to create the Daffodil Project and as of several years ago 7.5 million daffodils had been planted in public spaces in remembrance of those who lost their lives. 

After many years as a successful landscape designer Edwina von Gal took her experience as an environmentally aware designer based in East Hampton NY and launched the non-profit The Perfect Earth Project.  Her aim is to show people that they can have beautiful landscapes without the use of pesticides and chemicals.  Her experience using sustainable practices and native plants is integral part of her mission to help gardeners transition away from the use of chemicals. 

Lauren Springer Odgen has long been a proponent of naturalistic native plantings.  Along with her husband, Scott, she has worked to introduce designs that work for environments and climates from Zones 4 through 10.  She has personal gardens in both Fort Collins CO and Austin TX which she uses as examples of her design principles.  Author of several books on garden design and plants, among her many projects she recently worked with the Gardens at Spring Creek, Fort Collins, to create xeric gardens suited to the front plains. 

These are just a handful of the many talented women who have contributed to the work of horticulture over the years, and their contributions whether large or small, famous or undocumented, are all valued for what they contribute to horticulture and our lives on this planet. 

Photos: Isabella Preston, “Botanist” The Daily Gardener.  Jeanne Baret The Mariners “Ages of Exploration”. Beatrix Jones Farrand, 1943 portrait. The Beatrix Farrand Society archives. “Gertrude Jekyll in the Spring Garden. Aged 80” English Heritage. 

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