As New England waits for spring — and observes Women’s History Month — the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is celebrating the roots of the region’s traditions of landscape design and social outreach. “Cultivating Legacies: New England Women in Horticulture and Landscape Design” salutes six notable women from the turn of the last century with a seminar on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Arboretum’s Hunnewell Building.
The women being honored — Mary “Polly” Wakefield, Marjorie Russell Sedgwick, Martha Brookes Hutcheson, Eleanor Cabot Bradley, Marian Roby Case, and Rose Standish Nichols — may not be household names, but each played what could be called a groundbreaking role in New England horticulture.
In addition to their ties to the Arboretum, all of these women shared a common goal, said Lisa Pearson, head of library and archives at the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library: “The improvement of plants but also the improvement of society” through landscape design and horticulture.
Wakefield (1914–2004) will forever be linked to the Kousa dogwood trees she bred on her family’s farm in Milton. But she was also an advocate for ecology and education. A member of the Massachusetts Governing Board of the Nature Conservancy and of the Highway Corridor Land Use Committee of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, Wakefield pushed through the state legislature bills to protect nongame wildlife and set aside a variety of ecological habitats for endangered wild plants and animals. She also created the private Mary M.B. Wakefield Charitable Trust to ensure that the farm that had been in her family for 300 years would be used for education and community engagement after her death. Today, more than 2,000 schoolchildren, from kindergarten through fifth grade, attend these programs, which are open to any interested school program. “She realized it was important for children to have hands-on opportunities,” said Debbie Merriam, the trust’s landscape director.