British horticulturist Ellen Willmott knew she was a gardener from an early age. “I had a passion for sowing seeds and was very proud when I found out the difference between beads and seeds and gave up sowing the former.” She would eventually create one of the most celebrated gardens in England.
Born into a well-to-do family in Heston, Middlesex, on August 19, 1858, Willmott was a child when she first came to Warley Place, the 33-acre estate she would later come to inherit. Although Ellen’s parents and sister were also quite interested in gardening, it was Ellen for whom plants and gardens became a fascination abiding above all else. Her wealth allowed her to fill the grounds with magnificent gardens, and to pay for the labor it took to maintain them.
Like other young ladies of the era, both of the Willmott girls took lessons in the usual genteel pursuits of French language and china painting. But Ellen’s unconventional and wide-ranging interests led her to explore many other pastimes. She purchased and used fine carpentry tools, a lathe for turning wood and iron, cameras and darkroom equipment, a microscope and a telescope. Willmott also indulged a penchant for collecting rare and beautiful items, among them a Stradivarius violin. She even acquired a printing press, which was probably later used to print up the annual lists of seeds that had been gathered at Warley Place.
At the same time she indulged her many interests, Willmott increasingly flexed her wings as a gardener. She is supposed to have designed and supervised her first major planting, an alpine garden, when she was only just past her teens. By 1894, she had joined the Royal Horticultural Society, where she became friends with famous 19th century landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll. The two women were the only females awarded the first Victoria Medal of Honour, recognizing distinguished British horticulturists, in 1897.
Narcissus at Warley Place
Willmott was an avid walker, frequently traveling on foot to visit nearby gardens and more often than not returning to Warley with a knapsack full of plants. She counted royalty among her garden visitors, entertaining Queen Alexandra, the queen’s daughter Princess Victoria and her daughter-in-law (later Queen Mary). Upon her father's death in 1898, Willmott became the sole inheritor of the house and grounds of Warley, and she began adding more plants than ever to her gardens. In Warley’s heyday, over 100 gardeners were needed to care for more than 100,000 species. A head gardener oversaw numerous foremen assigned to the various types of gardens, with separate managers for alpines, herbaceous plants, roses and chrysanthemums. It took three men to manage the fruits and vegetables. Willmott even employed a water engineer, whose sole job it was to administer the pump house that supplied water to the estate and its gardens.
Willmott was reputedly a demanding employer. She designed the uniform that identified the men in her employ: navy blue apron and green silk tie, topped with a boater tied with a green band. When traveling to and from the estate, even when crossing the road from one part of the garden to another, Warley gardeners were expected to remove the uniform, fold it neatly and tuck it under their arms. Their work hours, from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM (4:00 PM on Saturdays), left only Sundays free from toil.
In addition to authoring two books on gardening, Willmott fostered both experimentation and exploration. She underwrote plant hunters such as Ernest Wilson on expeditions to China and the Middle East to search for new and exotic species. More than 60 plants have been named in honor of either Willmott or Warley Place, among them a tulip, narcissus, phlox, bellflower, anemone, sweet pea, wallflower, iris, lily, lilac and several roses.
Dogged by financial troubles in her later years, Willmott was forced to downsize both her staff and gardens, as well as sell some of her properties and valuable collections. The privations of World War I precipitated further decline in the once-grand grounds of Warley Place. After Willmott died in 1934 at the age of 76, the estate fell into disrepair; the house was eventually demolished. Today the property is a designated nature reserve overseen by the Essex Wildlife Trust.
The plant most famously associated with Ellen Willmott is the giant sea holly, or "Miss Willmott's Ghost" (Eryngium giganteum). Willmott is supposed to have cast seeds of this thistle-like biennial on her visits to friends’ gardens. Whether the legend is true or not, the plant's nickname seems appropriate. When the stately 5-foot-tall stems bearing prickly silver-white flowers appeared years after Ellen Willmott's visit, her friends must have been reminded of the grand lady of the garden herself.
Sources: "Miss Willmott of Warley Place: Her Life and Her Gardens" by Audry Le Lievre "A Century of Gardeners" by Betty Massingham
Dave's Garden member photos: Lathyrus by AnniesAnnuals Potentilla by hczone6 Syringa by palmbob Epimedium by weerobin Aethionema by bootandall Eryngeum giganteum by Kell
About Gwen Bruno
After spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.