Women’s History Month is the perfect time to highlight some of the critical contributions of women to horticulture and botany. Many of our modern-day plants, growing techniques, and discoveries were not possible without them.
The four women featured below are our heroines not only because of their accomplishments but also because of their perseverance and spirit. They lived during times when science and most professional pursuits were all but closed to women because of their gender, making their advancements in the field even more noteworthy.
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) – German-born Artist, Entomologist, and Botanist
Merian’s career in the natural sciences began with her beautiful and precise botanical illustrations. She published three volumes of The New Book of Flowers before moving on to study entomology, collecting and observing the life cycles of 186 different species. In 1679, she published a detailed study based on her observations on the life cycle of butterflies and, for the first time, documented findings of food plants necessary for different butterfly species. This likely set the foundation for butterfly gardens and pollinator gardens that are so popular today.
In 1699, Merian self-funded an expedition to Suriname, where she discovered, documented, and published many findings of plants then unknown to Europeans. Her work went on to influence future scientists, including Carl Linnaeus, who created the modern system of identifying living organisms known as binomial nomenclature, and Charles Darwin, who created the theory of evolution.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) – Famed British Horticulturist
Jekyll trained as an artist, but turned to gardening and photography as her new avenues for creative outlet at age 40. Her signature style of naturalistic plantings in drifts of soft color reminiscent of impressionist paintings has influenced many future generations of garden designers.
Jekyll partnered with the architect, Edwin Lutyens, to create over 100 houses and gardens that epitomized Edwardian garden design. Besides that, Jekyll penned 10 books and thousands of articles. Her style of garden remains popular today.
Ynés Mexía (1870 – 1938) – Late ‘bloomer’ Mexican Botanist
Mexía was a legendary botanist who started her career at the age of 50 when she joined the Sierra Club in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the last 18 years of her life, Mexía collected approximately 150,000 species during her expeditions to Alaska, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. Through these expeditions, she discovered hundreds of never-before-seen plants.
The Lasianthaea fructicosa (also known as Zexmenia mexiae) is named after Mexía.
Beatrix Jones Farrand (1872-1959) – American Horticulturist
Farrand was a prolific landscape architect who consulted and designed more than 200 projects, including gardens for the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the White House, the New York Botanical Garden, Yale University, and Princeton University.
At the age of 27, Farrand became a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the first woman charter member.