Trailblazing women in roses

It’s well known that some of the most famous old roses were named in women’s honour, but women have also been trailblazers as collectors of roses and other plants.

Nearly a century after Empress Josephine at Malmaison, the Englishwoman Ellen Willmott FLS, VMH, 1858 – 1934, built up a huge collection of plants at her home, Warley Place, at one time employing over 100 gardeners. She also used her wealth to fund plant-hunting expeditions and bought houses with wonderful gardens in France and Italy, in the process spending her entire fortune.

An influential member of the Royal Horticultural Society, in 1897 Miss Willmott became one of the first holders of the Victoria Medal for Horticulture, and was one of the first women to be elected to the Linnean Society. In 1910-14 she published The Genus Rosa, magnificently illustrated by Alfred Parsons. She was later awarded the Dean Hole Medal by the Royal National Rose Society, and studied and collected many different plant groups.

The Genus Rosa

However, in later life Ellen Willmott literally beggared herself: today Warley Place exists only as ruins, and her garden has disappeared. The site now belongs to the Essex Wildlife Trust and you can read about Miss Willmott’s romantic riches to rags story on their website.

Alongside the many plants named after her, roses bearing her name include Rosa blanda var. willmottiae, R. chinensis var. indica ‘Miss Willmott’, R. Ellen Willmott, R. x warleyensis, R. willmottiae and R. willmottiana. The lovely 1938 single rose ‘Ellen Willmott’ is still available in commerce.