Index to Plant Club Speakers, 1889–1965

Annette LaMond

This index of Plant Club speakers includes many names that are still known today, at least in their fields or by local historians. Quite a few were Harvard professors; one of the first to address the club was the Arnold Arboretum’s Charles Sprague Sargent. Notably, some of the professors specialized in other fields, such as classics and archeology, but were formidable botanists and horticulturists nonetheless. Among the landscape designers who spoke to the club were Mabel Babcock; Paul Frost; Warren Manning (who also provided advice on civic projects); and Fletcher Steele. (Babcock and Steele designed gardens for several club members.) Well-known botanists include Alice Eastwood; Margaret Clay Ferguson; Merritt L. Fernald; George L. Goodale; Paul C. Mangelsdorf; and Benjamin L. Robinson. Plantswomen and plantsmen who shared their knowledge include Mrs. Hugh Hencken (before she became television personality Thalassa Cruso); John George Jack; Kathryn Taylor; Helen Noyes Webster (better known as Mrs. Hollis Webster); and Donald Wyman. Quite a few speakers were conservationists. Although their names may no longer be familiar, they played lead roles in saving thousands of acres that are now beloved sanctuaries. Among them: Annette Cottrell; Walter Deane; Kay Kulmala; Winthrop Packard; and Theodore Lyman Storer. Other speakers – Emma G. Cummings; Kaneji Demoto; Robert T. Jackson; Edith H. Scamman – defy categorization and should also be better known. This is also true of member speakers. It is my hope that the history of the Plant Club, viewed through its programs, will give new recognition to all the speakers in this index.

View a PDF of the index here.

A History in One Thousand Programs (More or Less): The Cambridge Plant Club, 1889–1965

Plant Club record book, Volume I, page 1. Originally the Floricultural Society, the simpler Plant Club moniker was adopted at the club’s second meeting on February 11, 1889.

Plant Club record book, Volume I, page 1. Originally the Floricultural Society, the simpler Plant Club moniker was adopted at the club’s second meeting on February 11, 1889.

Read about the Cambridge of the 1880s and the women who came together in the unseasonably warm winter of 1889 to found a garden club. The moniker “Garden Club” was not yet a term of art (or obvious choice), so they debated and settled on a simple name – Plant Club – which expressed their shared interest in growing plants well, indoors and out. This essay describes how members of the club were continually inspired and re-energized by expert speakers, including from their own ranks, and how over the years, a passion for gardening turned into advocacy for conservation and civic planting in Cambridge and beyond.

Read a PDF of the article HERE.

“What’s in a Name? or Is This the First Garden Club?”

There is often controversy surrounding the honor of being the “first” – whether in the realm of schools, colleges, hospitals, or special-interest clubs. Garden clubs are no exception. As far as can be determined, the first garden club in the U.S. was the Lexington (MA) Field & Garden Club, organized in 1876 as the town prepared for a visit by President Ulysses S. Grant. The second, founded three years later in nearby Cambridge, was the Garden Street Garden Club – a small club whose members, all women, lived in close proximity to the Harvard Botanic Garden. The third garden club, also in Cambridge and also a women’s club, was the Plant Club; it did not have the word “garden” in its name – likely to distinguish itself from the Garden Street Garden Club, with which it had close ties. Finally, in February 1892, came the Ladies Garden Club of Athens, Georgia. These were the pioneers; it would be another dozen years before garden clubs began to proliferate.

In the 1930s, the Athenians began to lobby in Horticulture magazine for recognition as the first “garden club.” They asserted that the Cambridge club was narrowly focused on house plants (not true, disproved by reading the first pages of the Plant Club’s record books) and that the Lexington club was missing records (an ironic charge because the the Georgia club had lost its first two-plus decades of records in a house fire). In 1939, without consulting either the Lexington or the Cambridge club, the National Council of State Garden Clubs passed a resolution recognizing the Athens club as the oldest garden club in the country.

‘What’s in a Name?’ or ‘Is This the First Garden Club?’ – written by CP&GC historian Annette LaMond (originally published by the Cambridge Historical Society in 2007) lays out the dispute and corrects the historical record.

Read a PDF of the article HERE.

The Roots of CP&GC: The Plant Club

A group of Cambridge women with a talent and passion for plants joined together in January 1889 to form a club the became the Floricultural Society, but at its second meeting was renamed the Plant Club. Early conservationists, members supported the fledgling Society for the Protection of Native Plants, later known as the New England Wildflower Society, now named the Native Plant Trust, the first conservation organization for plants in the United States.

These inquisitive women tapped into the rich academic community in which the club was founded and created the template still followed by today’s members: educational presentations by eminent academics, scientists, historians, designers, conservationists and members alike that became the central feature of their meetings. More informal committee meetings enhanced the intellectual pursuits of members—sharing their own horticultural knowledge. Recipes for fertilizers and soil enrichment, pest treatments, garden walks and visits, and propagation best practices were among topics and expertise shared by members.

Interest in the Plant Club grew as its civic work expanded, however membership was limited to allow for meetings in members’ homes. A sister club was founded in 1938 — the Cambridge Garden Club. Members of the new club, including several Plant Club women, were soon thrown into their first conservation project – helping in the cleanup and restoration after the Great Hurricane of 1938. The shared interests of both clubs led to many joint meetings, programs and outreach projects. Children’s gardening was a particular focus. A campaign in the late 1950s to save 36 acres of marshland along the Charles River from the four-lane Greenough Boulevard failed, but lessons learned set the stage for future successes.

Early in the 1960s, the two clubs embarked on a large conservation project at Fresh Pond Reservation – the City’s largest open space. In partnership with the City, the clubs reclaimed and replanted Blacks Nook – given its proximity to Concord Avenue –  a site that had come to be used for dumping. The experience galvanized members—as organizers, workers, and fundraisers—and the two clubs joined together create the Cambridge Plant & Garden Club. The newly combined organization applied for membership in The Garden Club of America, becoming a member of that national network in 1968.

Work at Fresh Pond Reservation continued though CP&GC turned its attention to the restoration of other green spaces in the city. CP&GC launched a restoration of the Longfellow House garden and grounds – being the primary gardeners there until the late 1970s. The club also focused its energy on the garden at the Cambridge Historical Society’s Hooper-Lee-Nichols House. A project that had begun as a Garden Club effort in 1961 where substantial commitment continues today. Other planting projects have taken CP&GC to public schools, parks, and other green spaces across the city.

The Plant Club’s founders would perhaps be astounded by the way their club has expanded, but they would have hoped for no less. CP&GC is proud that its archives reside at the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in the United States.