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A photo of Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire, UK.

Photo Credit: "English Herbaceous Borders | Waterperry Gardens, Oxfordshire, UK | (1 of 50)" by ukgardenphotos, used under CA BY 2.0 / cropped to fit format

Famous Women, Plant Lovers, and Writers in History: Beatrix Potter and Gertrude Jekyll

Over the centuries, women have been instrumental in making great strides in all areas of life. So, in honor of National Women’s Month, we are going over just a few who helped shape botany, horticulture, and other important fields into what they are today. These women had to work hard for their recognition but still managed to impact the world for generations. Thanks to their efforts, other women were able to follow suit, and the world is better for it. Without further ado, let us very briefly look into the accomplishments of Beatrix Potter and Gertrude Jekyll.

Beatrix Potter, who is known today for her famous book series centered around beautifully (and accurately) drawn woodland creatures, was just as skilled a scientist as she was a writer, if not more so. As an illustrator with an eye for detail, Potter studied mushrooms, fungi, and lichen and then copied her observations into books. Her drawings are so detailed that they are still used today when identifying certain species.

But Potter did not spend all of her time illustrating. She was also a woman trying to discover important details about how mushrooms and various other fungi reproduced. Using a microscope, she studied various types and noted her findings. Eventually, she made a breakthrough and was able to expound upon the idea of lichen being part fungus and part algae. The original theory that brought the concept to her attention was first created by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener. Unfortunately, the theory had been dismissed by the scientific community at the time. Some even went so far as to ridicule Schwendener for his ideas. Potter’s paper, titled "On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae," went into specifics on how lichen germinates and included her successful experiments on germinating a lichen spore. When her paper was presented, the all-male board dismissed it. Partially because it was based on Schwendener's mocked theory, but more so because she was a woman.

Though her scientific career had been stifled, she continued to write books and illustrate mushrooms. She was unable to achieve recognition by the scientific community within her lifetime but is now seen as someone who could have done so much more if only she had the opportunity (of course, her talent was so far-reaching that she still found success through other means).

The second woman we are going to discuss is the famed Gertrude Jekyll, a famous horticulturist who designed hundreds of gardens around England during her lifetime. She was born into a wealthy and connected family (whose name is said to be the source for Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Dr. Jekyll). This gave her the freedom to master needlework and attend South Kensington School of Art where she studied a range of topics including music, painting, and (foreshadowing) gardening. Jekyll spent her early life painting and embroidering, but as she reached middle age her eyesight began to decline. Her doctor recommended she stop doing things that required concentration on close-up objects, cutting out her usual pastimes. Luckily for her, gardening was still something she could do, and with her formal training on the subject, she knew she could do it well.

Not only did Jekyll have the knowledge to properly maintain a garden, but she also had the skills to make it exceptionally beautiful. She was well versed in color theory thanks to her training and knew how to make certain areas draw the eye. Her gardens also often featured variation in texture. Her garden designs soon caught her peers' attention, and she was soon working alongside an architect named Edwin Lutyens. Together, they designed dozens of properties. Lutyens would give her the framework of the home and Potter would provide the landscape.

Jekyll also worked on her own, designing over 400 gardens in her lifetime, some even in America. Unfortunately, most of her gardens have been removed or are overgrown, with only a few still being maintained today. However, if you want to make a garden in her style: fear not! She was perhaps one of the most prolific writers on gardening of all time, publishing over a dozen books and writing hundreds of articles to various periodicals during her lifetime (and remember, she only started professionally gardening when she was middle-aged). These books can still be found online, and though older copies will be quite expensive, I was able to find free PDFs for a few of them with a quick search.

Both Beatrix Potter and Gertrude Jekyll were so talented that they are still relevant today. Many cues are taken from Jekyll when talking about classic English gardens, which have only just been starting to fall out of fashion in favor of modern approaches. Potter’s work is also still useful for identifying certain taxonomies of mushrooms or fungi as they often include cross-sections in addition to the detailed exterior drawing. I am so thankful that these women were also talented writers, which allowed them to share their skills with the world and give us a window to the past to look through if we ever so desire. Happy National Women’s Month!