The Ghost of Ellen Willmott

Have you ever heard of Ellen Willmott? She was an heiress who blew through her fortune on gardens and plants. Hailing from the UK, she spent vast sums of money on building gardens in Europe, staff to maintain these gardens, and plants to fill the garden beds. Several sources report that she had approximately 100,000 different types of plants in her garden. Her inheritance funded numerous plant exploration trips in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. From these trips, newly introduced plants were named with willmottiae or warleyensis in honor of her name and her garden, Warley. Willmott was eccentric and obsessed with the art of gardening. Another source reported that she would fire gardeners if they missed a weed in the mixed border. Unfortunately, near the end of her life, she had to sell off most of her property and possessions to pay off her debts. Her garden and home at Warley were eventually razed although now the area is a nature preserve.

Miss Wilmott Eryngium

Her legend lives on in the plants named in her honor and most notably, Eryngium giganteum. This species of sea holly is silver blue, reaching heights of nearly 3 feet when in flower. Eryngium giganteum is a short-lived perennial, usually dying after flowering. It is a self-seeder in the plant bed so it will come back from seed even after it dies. Ellen Willmott so loved the giant sea holly that she typically carried seed around with her wherever she traveled. Miss Willmott felt that a garden could always use a giant sea holly so she would freely toss out seed in others’ gardens. The seeds would germinate and turn into plants, earning the common name of Miss Willmott’s Ghost. Can you imagine inviting a horticultural celebrity over to your home only to find out later that they threw out seeds of a spiny, silvery plant in your garden? That is exactly what she did and people began to associate the presence of an Eryngium giganteum with a visit from Ellen Willmott. After searching on-line, Miss Willmott’s ghost appears to be more popular in the United Kingdom than here in the United States.

Eryngium Giganteum

I am working on a garden design for a naturalistic border here in Maine where I would like to contrast the fine texture of Heavy Metal panicum with the bold, spiky foliage of Miss Willmott’s ghost. I have never grown this Eryngium before so it will be fun to see how this combination works out later this summer. Have you grown any of the Eryngium species before? If so, have you tried E. giganteum?

Rodney

Images: Tari NZ (CC), Plant Database, jardinage.net

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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.

4 Comments

  1. rochelle on April 29, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Awesome plant story! I love it!

    • rodneyeason on April 29, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      Thanks, Rochelle!

  2. Debbie Feely on April 29, 2014 at 11:28 am

    I have two seedlings of this plant, growing for the first time. The story and photos are great! Thanks!

    • rodneyeason on April 29, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      Debbie, let us know how your plants fare.

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