When you think about some of history’s greatest gardeners, you might first think of Robert Mendel, whose work with pea plants help define laws of heredity, or Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous landscape designer who brought us Elm and Central Parks. However, men are not the only ones creating beauty and inspiring change in the garden.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we are taking a look back at some of history’s greatest women growers, whose achievements in science and gardening are only just part of their great legacies.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
“The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.”
Born around 1098 in what is now Germany, Hildegard of Bingen began to experience visions at a very young age. She grew up to take vows in the Benedictine Order, and her life as a nun is filled with stories of her brilliance in writing, language, philosophy, and composing.
In addition to her many skills, Hildegard was known for her prowess in healing. She approached medicine as a type of gardening, viewing the herbs she cultivated in her monastery’s gardens as directly in correlation with the functions and humors of the human body. Her work in the garden inspired much of her scientific writing, and she is still today associated with veriditas, the idea that the health of humans is directly correlated to that of the earth.
Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)
“When the Queen took possession of her private domain, her interest was focused first and foremost on the garden…Marie-Antoinette set a new style, eager to create a setting for country walks and activities, reflecting her own personality: charming, modern and original.”
Former queen of France Marie Antoinette has a rather complicated legacy. While incredibly unpopular in her time, she is sometimes viewed as a victim of her circumstances under a modern lens. Whatever you may think of her personally, one thing is pretty uncontested: the woman knew her way around a garden.
Marie Antoinette had a private garden at Versailles known as The Queen’s Grove. She worked with landscape architect Michel-Barthélemy Hazon to create a place where she could wander freely, one that was focused less on the linear aesthetic as other parts of the grounds and more on the plants themselves. She imported shrubs, trees and flowers from North America, her favorite being the Virginia tulip tree.
The Queen’s Grove has been lost to time, but for those who wish to experience, there is hope: Versailles announced in 2020 that they are working on a $2 million initiative to restore Marie Antoinette’s gardens to their former glory, using the same plants and trees she so loved more than two centuries ago.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932)
“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”
British-born Gertrude Jekyll is one of the most famous garden designers in modern history. Over her lifetime, she designed or planned over 400 gardens, and she was known for her use of flowering edges, vibrant varietals, and almost painterly swaths of color. She took inspiration from the Impressionist art period through which she lived, visible in the strokes of bright flowers set against verdant greenery in her garden designs.
Though very little of her work can be seen in its original glory, Gertrude Jekyll is still today considered a “premier influence in garden design” by both British and American gardening enthusiasts.
“Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth.”
Though better known for her timeless classics such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, writer Edith Wharton was a keen and skilled gardener. Growing up in Europe, she toured some of France and Italy’s most splendid gardens, even experiencing some designed by the great Gertrude Jekyll. She often wrote about gardens, both in her works of fiction as well as in one of her non-fiction pursuits, Italian Villas and Their Gardens.
She cultivated her own garden at her house, known as The Mount, where she lived with her husband, Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton. Her garden designs tended to break the popular mold: biographer Louis Auchincloss wrote, “In gardens and houses where it was fashionable to be haphazard and cluttered, she was chaste, classical and historically sound.”
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
Audrey Hepburn may best be known as a star of the silver screen, but she shined in many other places. Hepburn was an avid gardener, and she made sure to plant one in each of the places that she lived. She once said that “Gardening is the greatest tonic and therapy a human being can have. Even if you have only a tiny piece of earth, you can create something beautiful, which we all have a great need for. If we begin by respecting plants, it’s inevitable we’ll respect people.”
Hepburn’s last on-screen appearance was as host of “Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn,” a documentary series that looked at some of the world’s most noteworthy gardens, infusing each with works of literature, art and history. The series earned an Emmy Award, which was granted to Hepburn posthumously.
Lady Bird Johnson
“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
Growing up in East Texas, Lady Bird Johnson loved watching the wildflowers bloom each spring. During her tenure as First Lady, she dedicated her time to beautifying the less-than beautiful areas of the country, namely along major highways.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is now part of the University of Texas, and its gardens contain more than 900 native species of Texas.
“Sometimes I stand under the arbor, close my eyes, and allow myself to take in as much as I can: I hear birds splashing in the fountain and literally smell the roses. This garden makes me present.”
While she is easily one of the most recognizable faces of our time, Oprah Winfrey has stated that her garden is one of the grounding forces in her life. She is particularly fond of roses, and the garden at her Montecito estate is home to a variety of varietals, including Koko Loko, Yves Piaget and Bewitched. She has even developed a new hybrid, which she calls Legends in honor of her African American heroes.
“It is my hope that our garden’s story-and the stories of gardens across America-will inspire families, schools, and communities to try their own hand at gardening and enjoy all the gifts of health, discovery, and connection a garden can bring.”
While the first White House vegetable garden was planted by Abigail Adams, Michelle Obama helped bring the plot national attention. When she first began her tenure as First Lady, she had no gardening experience, only the desire to incorporate more fruit and vegetables into her children’s diets. Over eight years, she cultivated more than 55 varieties of crops, ranging from vegetables such as peppers and arugula to herbs such as cilantro and Thai basil.
In 2021, Obama published the book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. In 2016, she said that the garden had inspired others to grow, stating that there were “50 percent more community gardens right here in Washington, D.C.”
Who are your favorite women gardeners? Let us know who we missed on social media.