International Women's Day

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

Women have gently steered the nature of our gardens from earliest times. Seminal authors from Edith Wharton to Brenda Colvin have set the narrative but what of the actual plants? So often we hear of genus and species named after Wilson et al. Well, what I love about taxonomy and botanical nomenclature is the story behind the words and Mathiasella has a particularly good one. The plant is native to Mexico but was discovered rather recently in 1954 and named in honour of Mildred Mathias.

Born in Sappington, Missouri in 1906, her father was a teacher and her intense love of study showed itself early. While still at senior school, she was the first student to enrol at the newly established Junior College of Flat River and each day would attend her high school typing class at 7.30am before catching a train to college. In 1923, Mildred registered at Washington University in St. Louis and went on to major in mathematics before transferring to botany, earning an A.B in 1926 and a Ph.D. in 1929 while conducting her graduate research at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Her doctoral dissertation, when she was 22, was a taxonomic monograph on Cymopterus and the relatives of the carrot family (Umbelliferae). New world umbellifer were at that time fairly unknown but Mildred’s work was set to change all that. During the summer of 1929, Mildred, in a trusty Model T Ford and with two companions, traveled across the western United States to visit numerous communities of Umbelliferae. From 1929 through to 1939, she carried on her study, often unpaid, stopping only to marry Gerals L. Hassler in 1930. From 1939, she was joined in her work by Dr Lincoln Constance at the University of California, Berkeley, and together from 1940 to 1981 they jointly published more than 60 scientific papers on Umbelliferae of the New World. Together they wrote descriptions of more than 100 new species and several new genera. Her expertise on umbellifers earned her international recognition in taxonomy and when I studied at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh you certainly could not talk about Umbelliferae without mentioning her name. In 1964, she became the first woman President of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists.

From the early 1950s, Mildred started publishing her first articles on Californian horticulture. She, along with other leading horticulturalists, started introducing a diverse palate of botanically interesting and diverse sub-tropical plants to nurserymen and gardeners in the coastal and desert areas of southern California. With such a strong taxonomic background, she was a staunch advocate of correct scientific identification and nomenclature of horticultural material and her education displays at gardening shows won many awards.

In 1956, Mildred Mathias was appointed director of the Botanical Garden at UCLA and served there until retirement in 1974. This position provided a platform for tireless work to the great benefit of institutions across California and she attracted a huge following from amateur gardeners to landscape designers and the public at large. From the late 1950s through to 1964, Mildred joined Dermot Taylor to collect and screen plants from tropical forests for new medicines. She traveled from Zanzibar to Amazonian Peru and Ecuador to name a few, learning from local herbalists and medicine men along the way. These efforts earned her the accolade of being named Medical Auxiliary Woman of Science Award in 1963. Working in the tropics, Mildred was acutely aware of the need to preserve these vast resources and spoke critically about the careless destruction of rainforests, becoming a major voice and later President for its first 10 years of the Organisation for Tropical Studies. At the same time, she also championed conservation work in California and among the accolades this work brought were the Merit of Award of the California Conservation Council in 1962 and The Nature Conservancy National Award in 1964.

Her long career earned accolades and awards through to 1993 when she was named as Distinguished Economic Botanist by the Society of Economic Botany. Other awards included Award of Merit by the American Association of Botanic Gardens in 1976, Medal of Honour from the Gardening Club of America in 1982 and becoming the first executive director of the Association of American Botanical Gardens & Arboreta from 1977 to 1981.

From 1974 to 1994, she had led 53 groups with a thousand participants, to foreign natural areas of horticultural interest and gardens in more than 30 countries. Her last tour, at the age of 88, was in November, 1994, to Chile. Sadly, Mildred Mathias died on 16th February 1995 leaving a glittering path behind her built on a insatiable appetite for horticultural knowledge.

So I ask what's in a name? Sometimes you may just think ‘What a long, complicated, illegible name this is. Why can’t it just be called tea-cup flower!?’ but that would do a huge inservice to the people whose life's work and obsession is identifying and naming plants - and they do deserve some recognition, surely?

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