Lost Ladies of Garden Writing: Frances Edge McIlvaine

Miss Frances Edge McIlvaine is our next Lost Lady of Garden Writing.

As with the other lost ladies, at first I thought there wouldn’t be much to find out about Frances, or Fannie as her friends called her.

I knew, of course, that she’d written Spring in the Little Garden (1928), another book in the Little Garden Series edited by Mrs. Francis King, because I have it in my library. Otherwise, I’m not sure if our paths would have crossed.

The Find a Grave website shows a rather plain grave marker and gave me her birthdate of July 24, 1878 and the date of her death, November 24, 1964, at the age of 86.

But as I’ve continued with this series, my online sleuthing skills have improved a bit. And let me tell you…

Frances was the oldest child, and only daughter of a well-to-do family Philadelphia family. Her father was at various times listed as a manufacturer, drug manufacturer, or wholesale merchant of drugs. They spent the winters at their home on Baring Street in Philadelphia, PA. The census stats for the years they were there show that they always had a couple of servants living with them, sometimes as many as four or five. Frances had three younger brothers.

They seemed to spend their summers at their farm called Glen Isle in Downington, PA. I think Glen Isle is where Frances did most of her gardening. Today there is a restaurant there called The Orangery at Glen Isle. I hope they are working on restoring the gardens which she kept along with her father, with input from her brother, an architect.

In addition to writing Spring in the Little Garden, Frances appears to have written several articles for various publications in the 1910s and 1920s but many of them are only available in “snippet” view on the Google book site, so I couldn’t read them. I did pull out a couple of quotes that may gave us some insight into Frances.

First, there is this little tidbit from a Bulletin of Foreign Plant Introductions:

“Miss Frances Edge McIlvaine, Glen Isle Farm, Downington, Pa., writes August 12 1921:  Iris ensata S.P.I. No. 40766 sent me in February, 1918, from Chico, Calif., has now grown into a good sized clump. Its leaves have attained a length of some 2 to 2 1/2 feet. Its flowers are very small, a pale blue, but so fugacious one has to be out very early to see them. The introducer’s note said : “The long grasslike leaves are very strong and fibrous and may be used in the garden for tying purposes instead of raffia.” This could not be tested until this season. I am happy to say, however, that it is quite true. And in another year’s time it may become one of the most important plants in my working garden. I tied the strong stalks of dahlias this June using the ribbonlike leaves of the Iris, wrapping them twice around the dahlia stalk and around a 3 inch stake. It has dried and held perfectly. This will be a great labor-saver, as one could plant it about a garden at convenient intervals and have at hand a perennial source of tying material which is always urgently needed .”

Now you know why I chose to include a picture of a Japanese iris, probably Iris ensata, with this post. Of course after reading that, I went straight away outside, found my few Japanese irises and pulled a few leaves off to see if you really can use them as a tie instead of raffia. The answer is yes. You can use those leaves to tie up other plants.

The article tells me that Frances was a gardener who liked to try new plants. What gardener doesn’t?

In another piece written for The Flower Grower – March 21, Frances wrote about using farmerettes to help around the farm garden during World War I. Naturally, you’ll want to head down yet another rabbit hole to read about farmerettes, but stay here and visit with Frances just a while longer.

Like many of the other authors of books in The Little Garden Series, Frances was a member of The Garden Club of America. Her local garden club was The Weeders Garden Club of Downington, PA.

In the intro to Spring in the Little Garden, Mrs. Francis King wrote,

“And fortunate are we who now have a book on spring gardening unlike any other here or abroad; quite unlike most American garden books thus far in its mellow quality, born of long holding and use and in its gayety, born of the philosophic humor of Miss McIlvaine herself.”

I’ve also learned that Frances’s favorite flower was most likely primroses. She devoted one of the ten chapters in her book to “The Primula Family – Some Spring Species.” At one point in my research I think I saw where they sold hardy primulas at Glen Isle.

Though I found out quite a bit, I feel like I barely scratched the surface when it comes to Frances Edge McIlvaine. But that’s sometimes how it is.

The one piece of information I was looking for but never found was a picture of Frances. I came up empty-handed in my deep dives down through the internet looking for one. So unless a reader finds one, we’ll just have to imagine what she looked like when she wrote her book at the age of 50.

And I’ll leave you with that tidbit—that Frances was 50 when she wrote her book— to inspire you and remind you that you really aren’t that old.

Now, go out and garden, see if you can tie up a plant or two, maybe even a tomato with a leaf from Iris ensata and think of Miss Frances Edge McIlvaine, another Lost Lady of Garden Writing, when you do.


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