Sunday, March 13, 2011

International Women's Day: Two Women Who Shared More Than a First Name

March 8th was International Women's Day, with a global United Nation's theme of "Equal Access to Education, Training, Science and Technology."  Sitting here at the computer that day, writing about gardening, I couldn't help but reflect on that theme and how it related to two gardeners, who not only shared the same first name, but also a determination to make their place in a world that was almost completely dominated by men.

Beatrix Potter and Beatrix Farrand were born just a decade apart; Potter was born in London, in 1866 and Farrand in New York City in 1872.  Both women spent most of their lives building successful careers against all odds and, interestingly, credited much of their success in life to spending their formative years among nature and in gardens.

Beatrix Farrand
image courtesy of UC Berekely
Both Potter and Farrand were born into privileged families.  Beatrix Farrand's family had a distinguished family tree and she was the niece of Edith Wharton. During her youth, she spent her summers in Bar Harbor, Maine where she developed a keen interest in nature and native plants.  She visited many notable gardens in Italy, England, France and Germany while on several different tours to Europe, and was influenced by the work of both William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Beatrix Potter's parents discouraged higher education for women, so young Beatrix was educated at home by a governess. However, she spent many childhood holidays in Northern England and rural Scotland where, like Beatrix Farrand, she developed an interest in nature and wild animals.  She began to draw as a way to keep records of what she saw and, through her botanical drawings, she later became widely recognized as an expert in botany and mycology.  She was the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae.  Although she considered a scientific career in botany, she was rejected as a student at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew because she was a woman.  And, even though she wrote technical and scientific papers on her studies of mycology, they had to be presented by men, because women were barred from attending scientific meetings.

Beatrix Farrand began a career in the male dominated field of landscape architecture at the age of 25.  She first designed gardens for her neighbors in Bar Harbor, Maine and then, through some family connections, began to acquire a few commissions along the east coast.   She was married in 1913, and in 1927 her husband accepted a job as the first Director of the Huntington Library, in California. During a time when women were expected to quickly settle into the role of "housewife," Beatrix Farrand defied convention by continuing to commute cross-country by train to work on design projects along the east coast.

Beatrix Potter with her favorite dog Kep
image courtesy of
Beatrix Potter became an independent rich woman, not through the scientific study of mycology, but as a result of her beloved children's books.  In 1905, she bought Hill Top Farm, in England's Lake District.  There she became devoted to land conservation and, in an era when women weren't expected to know the difference between an acre and a dishrag, she shrewdly began to buy up land from right under the noses of her male counterparts.  In addition to her books--which remain best sellers today--one of her most lasting legacies is the over 4000 acres of land, which she accumulated and then willed to the National Trust following her death in 1943.  She almost singlehandedly ensured that England's Lake District remained unspoiled and that the practice of farming there will continue.

Farrand was one of the founding members, and the only woman, of the American Society of Landscape Architects.  During the last year's of her life, she devoted herself to establishing a center for the study of landscape design at Reef Point, Maine.  Sadly, following a wildfire on the island and facing a lack of funding, she dismantled the project with many of the plants going to the Asticou Azalea Garden in Northeast Harbor, Maine.  She died at the age of 86, at Mount Desert Island, in 1959.  Beatrix Farrand designed over 200 gardens and, today, is considered to be one of the most influential American landscape architects, even though she always preferred to be called a "landscape gardener."  Her contributions to landscape design and gardening can be felt all over Mount Desert Island, Maine and you can visit a few of her most famous private gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, DC, and Eolia, the home of Edward and Mary Stillman Harkness at Harkness Memorial Park, in Waterford, Ct.

Neither Beatrix Potter nor Beatrix Farrand knew anything about "equal access to education, training, science, or technonolgy" yet they would surely smile if they knew we were all promoting that theme on this 2011 International Women's Day.

Asticou Azalea Garden, Northeast Harbor, Maine


  1. Fantastic post! Two women, greatly admired and devoted to their passion. Thank you for introducing me to Beatrix Farrand. I think we have a movie in the making here. It would be great to see their stories, visually told, side by side.

    I have been to the home of Beatrix Potter in the Lake District of England and now I have another reason to visit Maine. Thank you!


  2. Thanks, Jeanne! I couldn't agree with you more; these are two women I greatly admire. Last summer, I spent some time visiting gardens on Mount Desert Island and the influence of Beatrix Farrand there is almost palpable. I would love to visit Hill Top Farm some day! --Joe

  3. Thank you for this very interesting post. Plants from Farrand's Reef Point collection also went to the Garland Farm in Bar harbor, Maine where Farrand lived from 1955 until her death in 1959. Garland Farm was purchased by the Beatrix Farrand Society in 2003 and restoration of the gardens began in 2006. To learn more, please visit our website

    Carolyn Hollenbeck for the Beatrix Farrand Society

  4. Carolyn, thanks so much for this! I'm so happy to hear about the restoration of the gardens at Garland Farm and I'll post the link to the Beatrix Farrand Society on our list of featured garden links!--Joe

  5. As an update to this post, this week (April 15, 2011) it was announced that a conservancy would begin a project to rescue the Beatrix Farrand designed Dumbarton Oaks Park, that adjoins the Dumbarton Oaks estate.


Thank you for your comments!

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