By Jenny Rose Carey

Horticultural Heroines for the last day of Women’s History Month

I woke up this morning thinking about some of the horticultural women who inspire me. It is the last day of Women’s History month and I want to share with you one of my personal horticultural heroines. 

On the wall of the PHS McLean library (at the corner of 20th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia) you will see a painting of of a lady in a green dress. Most people do not know who she is, but she is an important figure in the history of American horticulture.

I first ‘met’ Mary Helen Wingate Lloyd about 20 years ago through her garden that was featured in a book by Louise and James Bush-Brown called ‘Portraits of Philadelphia Gardens’, 1929. The black and white photos of her garden (Allgates) tell of a garden full of horticultural wonders – from the Primrose Path (how poetic) that led to the Herb Garden, The adored Rose Garden and the most famous garden of all, the spectacular sunken garden called an ‘Iris Bowl’. Descending circular terraces with color-themed irises were accessed by stone steps that led to an azure blue pool in the center.

Glass Lantern slide of Mary Helen’s Iris Bowl – from the PHS Collection

In 1920, Mary Helen was a founding member of the American Iris Society with another Philadelphian – John Caspar Wister. James Boyd – the then President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society – chaired the meeting. See the link to a full story at the Historic Iris Preservation Society website

Mary Helen has multiple connections to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. She was one of the first female council members (1920), she chaired some of the flower shows in the 1920’s, and was chair of the Library Committee. Mary Helen was also an early member of The Gardeners Garden Club and was editor of the Garden Club of America Bulletin.

During her life Mary Helen was a well-read, respected horticultural expert. She had an extensive library and corresponded with key horticulturists of the day. if people in a group had a horticultural question – the response would be ‘ask Mrs. Lloyd’.

Mary Helen Wingate Lloyd’s bookplate with
the Great Cherry Tree that overlooked the Iris Bowl

After her death in 1934 many of her books were donated to the PHS McLean Library. She was a discriminating collector of classic horticultural and botanical books, and affixed the attached bookplate to them (designed by American artist Dorothy Sturgis Harding, who also  created a book plate for Eleanor Roosevelt)

The attached lantern slide from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Collection of Mary Helen’s famous Iris garden is one of the many lantern slides currently being digitized through a project supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Historical Archives and Records Care Grant, a program funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

Finally – a one of my favorite quotes from Mary Helen – 
In my first garden…I used to proudly say that the first thing I planted was my own foot’

This quote is a rallying cry for this new generation of budding horticulturists. Follow in the literal and metaphorical footsteps of Mary Helen Wingate Lloyd. And when the PHS McLean library is open again – come and say hello to her portrait in a green dress.


Jenny Rose Carey

With very special thanks to the staff at the PHS McLean Library in Philadelphia. Especially Janet Evans – Head Librarian and Penny Baker – Archivist (for the scans and edits).