RHS Chelsea celebrates women in horticulture

Women take centre stage in a special installation at The Monument

Gardeners at RHS Chelsea
Historical constraints on women pursuing a career in horticulture makes the achievements of those who have succeeded all the more remarkable. This year at RHS Chelsea garden designer Pollyanna Wilkinson will create a tribute to some of those women with both plants and people.

One part of the display at The Monument is dedicated to unsung plant heroes, which are often overlooked, with the design for the space firmly female-focussed.

“It is a woman’s business to be interested in the environment. It’s an extended form of housekeeping.”

Alongside the planting is a dedication to some of the individuals who have played an important role in the development of horticulture be it as designer, scientist, campaigner, plant collector, journalist, artist or gardener.

Key figures in horticulture

Vita Sackville-West 1892-1962
Award-winning novelist, journalist and garden designer, Vita Sackville-West developed Sissinghurst Castle Garden alongside her husband Harold Nicolson. The garden is designed in the form of ‘Garden Rooms’ – including the famous White Garden – and boasts a fine collection of old roses.



Botany was considered an acceptable science for women to study until Carl Linnaeus’ identification of the ‘sexual system’ of plants made some consider the subject unseemly as a pastime for young women. Despite this, female scientists have made significant discoveries and carried out crucial research to help us understand horticulture. These pioneers include:
  • Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992), awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on the discovery of ‘jumping genes’
  • Mycologist and illustrator Elsie Wakefield (1886 – 1972) published around 100 papers on fungi and plants and wrote two field guides on British fungi.
  • Indian-born Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) became the first woman in the United States to earn a PhD in the field of botany. Her work with cross breeding led to her discovery of variety of sugar cane that could grow well in India and is widely cultivated to this day. Magnolia kobus 'Janaki Ammal'  is named in her honour.
Beth Chatto (1923 – 2018)
Plantswoman, garden designer and author, known for her principle of ‘right plant, right place’ Chatto won 10 consecutive Gold medals at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. 

Her naturalistic planting and wildlife-friendly gardens were considered unusual at the time, with one judge reportedly wanting her disqualified saying her plants were all weeds. Now her legacy can be seen in throughout the showground.

Visit Beth Chatto’s garden


Wangari Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011) became the first Black African woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. The Green Belt Movement which she founded empowered women to fight deforestation in Kenya, leading to the planting of more than 20 million trees and inspiring the creation of similar projects across Africa.

British botanical artist Margaret Mee (1909 – 1988) was one of the first people to highlight the impact of large-scale mining and deforestation on the Amazon basin. In her forties she moved to the Amazon to study and defend the rainforest for the next 30 years.
American conservationist and women’s rights activist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890 – 1998) dedicated much of her life to defending the Everglades after her 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass, exposed the damage being caused by drainage and development. She encouraged women to become more involved in conservation, saying: “It is a woman’s business to be interested in the environment. It’s an extended form of housekeeping.”

 Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932)

Known for her impressionist style of planting, garden designer Gertrude Jekyll created more than 400 gardens.  A key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, Jekyll’s many books and writings continue to be a source of inspiration for garden designers.


Many women have applied their artistic skill to their studies of horticulture and in doing so, have vastly increased the knowledge and understanding of plants. Marianne North (1830 - 1890) was a plant collector and illustrator who painted more than 900 species while travelling solo around the world.

Prolific illustrator Sarah Anne Drake (1803 - 1857) created 1,100 plates for The Botanical Register. She specialised in orchids and has the Drakaea orchid named in recognition of her contribution. More famous as an author, Beatrix Potter (1866 -  1943) was a passionate mycologist as well as being intrumental in the conservation of vast areas of The Lake District.

To find out more about the stories of women in horticulture, come along to RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May and see Pollyanna Wilkinson’s installation.

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.