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  • Writer's pictureJulie Bare

Touring the Henry Botanic Garden: A Wilderness Garden

Many people have heard of the Henry Botanic Garden of the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research but few have ever been. On Thursday, July 25th Women in Horticulture was honored to be invited for a tour of this wilderness garden. The Henry Botanic Garden was started by Mary Gibson Henry (1884 –1967), a remarkable botanist, plant hunter, and explorer. Like many women of her time, Mary Henry often doesn't get the recognition she deserves. She was a self taught plant explorer following her passion for North American plants wherever it took her, even if that was to uncharted Canadian mountaintops on horseback. Her story deserves to be shared and there's no better way to learn about her than in her own garden. The Henry Botanic Garden is open by appointment only so if you missed the WinH tour reach out to them about scheduling your own guided tour, it is well worth it.

Painting of Henry Botanic Garden by WinH member, Julicia James

Mary Gibson Henry was born in 1884 in Jenkintown, PA. Our tour guide shared a story about Henry's childhood with us that helped us understand why she may have wanted to plant a wilderness garden. As a little girl Henry would visit her uncle's very formal garden, a place where you were never permitted to touch the plants. Her garden is very much the opposite of that. Mary and her husband purchased the property in Gladwyne in the 1920's and she soon began to develop the garden. She appreciated the property for it's unique geologic features and wanted to accentuate the landscape using plants native to North America. The land was glaciated leaving large unusual rock formations. In the 1930's she created a rock garden using plants native to North America, this was a novel idea in the garden world at the time. Most rock gardens at the time featured European or Asian plants. Her passion for conservation and preserving North American plants eventually led to her establishing the Henry Foundation for Botanical Research in 1949. At the time of the Foundation's creation her garden had the largest collection in the world of plants native to North America.

Painting of the Henry Botanic Garden by WinH member, Julicia James

During her life Mary Henry was very well respected and received many plant gifts from notable people, such as Charles Sargent, first Director of the Arnold Arboretum and brothers Albert and Arthur Burkwood, English nurserymen and plant hybridizers. There is a great article in Arnoldia, the magazine of the Arnold Arboretum, describing her life and accomplishments. Her garden is full of treasures, but it takes a trained eye to appreciate them. Our tour was led by Susan Treadway, Mary Henry's granddaughter. On the tour Susan explained the particular way in which the garden is maintained. We also learned that Mary Henry sought out diminutive plant varieties that did not require much pruning. The majority of the plants featured in the garden are woody plants. Susan led us through the property pointing out impressive specimen along the way, including a gorgeous Stewartia monadelpha with cinnamon colored bark, Hamamelis virginiana with unusually slender leaves, and a Viburnum x burkwoodii, a gift to Mary Henry from Burkwood himself! They have 11 trees on the PA State Champion Tree Site, and of those 8 are the State Champions. The State Champions are tall stewartia (Stewartia monadelpha), chalk maple (Acer leucoderme), Littlehip hawthorne (Crataegus spathulata), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Fraser magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), sandpaper oak (Quercus pungens var. pungens), rhododendron spp. (Rhododendron auriculatum), and stinking cedar (Torreya taxifolia). Their Kobushi magnolia (Magnolia kobus) and Bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia) are second largest in the state and their Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is the seventh largest in the state. Susan encouraged us to come back in a few weeks to visit when a huge swath of the rarely planted Actaea podocarpa, American bugbane, is in bloom. We were all amazed that Susan, with the help of a few skilled volunteers, maintains the whole 42 acre property. The variety of plant material Mary Henry collected and planted was a thrill to see. WinH members hung on Susan's every word as she described Henry's life and garden.

We are so lucky that we had the chance to experience this garden. This garden not only preserves precious open space and rarely seen North American plants but is also a living representation of what an incredible women Mary Gibson Henry was. Women in Horticulture is so grateful to the Henry Botanic Garden and Susan Treadway for sharing this incredibly special place with us!

We would also like to extend a special thank you to WinH member Julicia James for sharing her beautiful landscape paintings of the Henry Botanic Garden with us! The HBG doesn't allow photos to be taken of the garden and used online, so this creative solution allowed us to feature Julicia's work!

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