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Ellen Willmott

Ellen Ann Willmott of Warley Place

Ellen Ann Willmott is no longer as famous as Gertrude Jekyll, yet . . .

“Ellen Willmott soon made a name for herself in horticulture, and helped to finance expeditions to acquire new plants. Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra and Princess Victoria visited her, and her garden became famous throughout Britain and beyond. She was one of two women awarded the RHS Medal of Honour in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, 1897. The other was Gertrude Jekyll.”   This from the Warleyplace.org.uk website which has brief information about EAW and the ongoing work at the estate which was sold after her death in 1934.

Ellen Willmott gave her name to several plants, including Miss Willmott’s Ghost, a sea holly more properly known as Eryngium giagantium. She was much given to secretly dropping the seeds of this silvery, thistle-like plant in her friend’s gardens when she came to visit.

Not all her friends were happy to find this ghostly reminder of her previous visit when they bloomed in their carefully planned borders the following summer.  Was she generous or mischievous?   Hmmmmmmm.

By the time she died in 1934 she was penniless. “Her descent into bankruptcy never interfered with her purchase of any rare plant she coveted. Once, detainted for shoplifting, Willmott called upon her friend the Queen to intercede. The department store, after a yearlong hullabaloo, had to apologize for it’s “error.” As her fortune faded, Willmott became increasingly paranoid, toting a revolver in her handag, booby trapping her home against intruders, and having her daffodil display trip-wired so that air guns would blast anyone attempting to filch a few.

(Taken from Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Eccentric Ethusiast, Plants & Garden News, Val 17, Number 3, Fall 2002, by Ilene Sternberg)”

I have no Miss Willmott’s Ghost in my garden, but last year, when my friend Jerry Sternstein was giving me a tour of his 60 lilacs, he pulled up a root of the single white Miss Willmott. She is now thriving in my garden, surrounded by daffodils. I don’t expect her to bloom this year, but I am cultivating patience.

7 comments to Ellen Willmott

  • I’m not certain free license ought to be given everyone with a whim to replicate the fanciful Miss Willmott’s scattering of her “Ghost” seeds. I’d have the poor luck to have a visitor sowing seeds of destruction in the form of yet another invasive species. Nonetheless, you are to be applauded for reviving the memory and tales of gardeners past and reminding us that the eccentricities, follies and colorful displays are not the preserve of merely the garden but also of the gardener. That Miss Willmott, in England no less, was packing a pistol is a little extreme: given the many tools any gardener would have on hand, one would think she’d simply brandish a trowel as she exited Harrod’s with purloined pots of (no doubt) Paeonia ‘High Noon’. A fascinating posting, Pat!

  • Pat

    Flaneur – I prefer the technique of giving away Miss Willmott roots, to scattering Miss Willmott’s Ghost. She did become wild and wooly towards the end.

  • That is a very nice ‘character’ piece on Miss Wilmott. I had heard of her penchant for spreading seed but the revolver and air gun now that is something that I might have to consider. Hmmmmm…..those pesky deer could have more of a fight on their hands.

  • Pat

    Layanee – We gardeners have been driven to desperate lengths!

  • Good Morning Pat! Another great post… this one is intriguing! I will call the library this morning to get a book on Miss Willmott! I love the idea of secretly dropping seeds into a friend’s garden! I would say it was a bit mischievous!! LOL Though as most gardeners I would guess she had a very generous nature. I am so excited to discover more about her… your essay nearly brought me to tears. I love the ending of how you now have a namesake in your garden. What a sweet friend you have in Jerry! We surly have to “cultivate patience” here … waiting for spring. The rain will wash away more snow today!! ;>) Carol

  • Pat

    Carol – good luck finding a book. Let me know if you are successful. I think one of the reasons she is not better known is that she became mentally ill during towards the end of her life, and therefore very difficult. Her garden was one of the great ones.

  • Ruby

    How fascinated was for me reading Miss Willmott’s ghost story… did she ever got a family of her own… perhaps that explains going demential and lonely at the end of her life… tragic end for me… how come one who created gardens of beauty did not produced fruit and rooted herself into seedlings to create her own heritage that will go for centuries…. hard to believe her life was lived day by day with not vision of a future generation of Willmott offsprings. A garden is for ever. It is a gift to generations to come. Impacted me for sure her story. I am a lover of plants and battle with weeds and pests… and yet when a bloom captivates me to an achy heart, I so wish my future grandchildren will delight in its beauty. Her end is a ghost to dread, certainly. Happy gardening and happy self among hollyhocks and Lupins.

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