Women's History Month: Gardening Trailblazers

If your knowledge of women in botany, horticulture, landscaping, and gardening is limited mainly to that contrary Mary whose garden grew with silver bells and cockle shells (which were actually references to instruments of torture, making this seem like a very dire nursery rhyme), Women’s History Month is the ideal time to salute some of the female trailblazers.

Nine women to know in botany, horticulture, landscaping and gardening

  • Jane Colden (1714-1762) is considered the first American female botanist. She cataloged and proposed names for hundreds of plants using the then-new two-part naming system: genus then specific epithet (a word or phrase that uniquely identifies a particular species within the genus.) She meticulously documented and illustrated hundreds of plants in her handwritten manuscript. While her plant names were not widely adopted, some plants she documented have been identified based on her work.
  • Although Gertrude Jekyll (1840-1932) was a British horticulturist and garden designer, she influenced American garden design through her books (particularly 1908’s Colour in the Flower Garden) and magazine articles. She is best known for her innovative Arts and Crafts style gardens and for popularizing the use of mixed borders. Jekyll received numerous awards from American horticulture societies, including the Garden Club of America and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which gave her The George Robert White Medal of Honor in 1929. Because much of her design archive, including plans and sketches, is at the University of California, Berkeley, American researchers and enthusiasts have easier access to her work. 
  • Mattie Edwards Hewitt (1869-1956) was an African American landscape designer. In 1928, she became the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of House & Garden magazine. 
  • Elizabeth Coleman White (1871-1954) revolutionized fruit farming when she developed disease-resistant peach varieties. Unfortunately, details about the named varieties themselves seem to be less documented or lost to time. We do know that she was one of the first American women to earn a Ph.D. in plant pathology.
  • Calling herself the “Pioneer Seedswoman of America,” plant breeder Carrie Lippincott (dates unknown) started a seed business in Minneapolis in 1886 then published what was the first seed catalog targeting women. Instead of the cut-and-dried seed sales pamphlets farmers were accustomed to, the Miss C. H. Lippincott Flower Seeds catalog was conversational in tone and featured illustrations of women, children, and flowers in full color. It was also the first seed sales piece to tell how many seeds were in a packet. 
  • Beatrix Farrand (1876-1959) is considered one of the most important landscape designers of the 20th century. She broke barriers by entering the field, no pun intended, at a time when landscape architecture and design in the U.S. and the world were dominated by men, and her success paved the way for other women. Farrand is perhaps best known for adapting the motifs and features found in classical European gardens — terraces, allées (tree-lined paths), and formal planting schemes — to American sensibilities. She was also an expert on native plants and incorporated them freely into her designs. Farrand was also sensitive to the natural features of the sites where her gardens would be planted, taking into consideration things like topography, existing vegetation, and views. Farrand designed numerous public gardens and estates, many of which are now considered landmarks, including Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C., the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Maine, and parts of the Princeton University campus.
  • Former First Lady of the United States Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson (1912-2007) was a passionate supporter of environmental stewardship who championed native wildflowers. One of her most significant achievements was successfully advocating for the 1965 Highway Beautification Act. The act reduced billboard clutter along highways and promoted the planting of native wildflowers, including her beloved Texas bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, which provided a habitat for pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Johnson’s used her platform as First Lady to convince countless Americans to embrace native plants and more natural landscaping. In 1982, she and former President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas, Austin. The nationally recognized facility promotes research, conservation, and education. 
  • Fanny Lou Hamer (1917-1977) was an activist and powerful voice in the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s. Hamer was also a pioneer in the area of modern community gardening, having founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969 on land she had purchased in the Mississippi delta. A former sharecropper herself, Hamer was determined to provide economic opportunities for Black farmers and sharecroppers. The Co-op grew cash crops including soybeans and cotton to pay taxes and administrative costs. Everything else grown on the land — primarily vegetables — was distributed back to those who worked at the Co-op. 
  • American botanist and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle (1935-) is a leading voice for ocean conservation. Her research on marine plants and ecosystems has advanced knowledge about the health of the world’s oceans. 

These are just a few of the women who have inspired gardeners and conservationists over the centuries. And although they come from different walks of life and have different interests, they form a unique sisterhood, one that’s made a lasting contribution to Mother Earth and forged a path for women to follow. 


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