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Wildflower Activists Battled For Blossoms

Wildflower Activists grew increasingly concerned about the decline of blossoms and their natural habitats during the late1800s. Large areas of land had been lost to agriculture and urbanization to accommodate population booms. Like feathers and fern, wildflowers became must-have accents in Victorian fashion and décor. Wildflower Activists documented alarming decreases in species across the country. They followed the lead from women who changed the use of feathers in fashion by starting organizations to protect wildflowers.

The battle for blossoms became a hotbed of conflicting opinions.  Conservationists wanting to regulate human use while preservationists sought to eliminate human impact altogether.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

Before the 1870s, prairies covered more than a third of the United States in a mosaic of grasses and flowering plants known as forbs. Over time, the natural landscape was lost to agriculture, ranching and livestock.

According to the U.S. Forest Service famed naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborn described Utah’s subalpine Tall Forb meadows when he first visited the area in 1877 as “A wild natural region…a perfect flower garden.” By 1904 he wrote that the same mountain landscape had been substantially degraded into “the most thoroughly devastated country I know of…” (U.S. Forest Service)

Similarly, lush pastures of forbs blanketed western mountains of the United States. Settlers tamed the natural landscape for ranching and raising livestock.

“Sadly, within a short span of 50 years many of the pristine mountain forb lands became so heavily overgrazed and degraded that the bloom from the western range had mostly vanished.”

“Many luxuriant tall forb species disappeared from the landscape by the late 1890s or became rapidly replaced by grasses and plants adapted to dryer, poorer soil conditions such as mule’s ear (Wyethia amplexicaulis), low larkspur (Delphinium nelsonii) or worse yet, by weedy, annual species like mountain tarweed (Madia glomerata).”

With few remaining tall forb pastures, ecologists consider them among the rarest plant communities.

Wildflowers Lost In New England

A study published in May of 2019 concluded that about one fourth of native New England wildflower species have been lost since the 1870s. According to Richard B. Primack, one of the authors of the study, New England offers a wealth of 19th-century documentation from wildflower activists, amateur botanists and professional fieldworkers.

The recent study included copious documentation from Harvard students Edward Rand and John Redfield who spent the summer of 1894 documenting wildflowers at Mount Desert Island in Maine. Their resulting book was titled, Flora of Mount Desert Island, Maine: A Preliminary Catalogue of the Plants Growing on Mount Desert and the Adjacent Islands.

The study concluded that flowers once plentiful have either diminished or disappeared altogether from some areas thanks to urban sprawl and agriculture. As in the western states, non-native species often replaced natives.

The impact of the loss of a single species of wildflower isn’t entirely clear. That said, people, animals and pollinators depend on local wildflowers to maintain healthy food webs. Any loss has consequences.

Wildflower Excursions Promoted Unbridled Picking

The Midland Railroad was founded in 1883 to serve Colorado Springs to Utah. It was a massive failure for many business reasons. But it found a measure of success in the early 1900s with its promoted Wildflower Excursions.

According to author and archivist Eleanor  McCrackin:

“…passengers would board trains in Colorado Springs, enjoy a serviced hot lunch and then be given two hours to leave their passenger-cars to walk the fields to gather – literally – armloads of wildflowers.” (postcardhistory.net)

The first of these excursions drew hundreds of people. As news of the event spread, thousands of tourists came to Colorado Springs.

“The schedule grew until every piece of CMR equipment was in operation every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from mid-April until late October.”

Mary Perle Anderson, a Wildflower Activist and member of the nascent Wild Flower Preservation Society, denounced these flower excursions. Calling the tourists’ behavior reckless, she reported that they would pull up great basketfuls in their ungoverned enthusiasm.

Elizabeth Britton Helped Wildflower Activists Stand Their Ground

By the late 1800s, wildflowers had become as popular as feathers in fashion and décor. Similarly, in Britain and America the Fern Frenzy sent avid fans to comb the countryside in pursuit of lacy treasures. Popularity of these natural beauties combined with massive population growth spelled disaster.

Wildflower Activists believed this destruction of the natural landscape had to be stopped.

Elizabeth Britton (January 9, 1858 – February 25, 1934) was a renowned bryologist, botanist, educator and author of 170 papers on mosses. Among her many professional accomplishments, she and her husband Nathaniel Lord Britton were instrumental in the formation of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

In 1901 Britton used a gift of $3,000 by Olivia and Caroline Phelps Stokes to the NYBG to launch the Wild Flower Preservation Society of Americ (WFPS). She took a cue from the woman-organized campaign to stop the slaughter of birds by boycotting the use of feathers in fashion in 1896. Boston socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and her cousin, Minna B. Hall, combed their blue books and organized a series of tea parties for the wealthy women of Boston. After tea was served, they urged their guests to boycott the use of feathers in fashion. Some women walked out, but others listened.

They recruited leading ornithologist William Brewster as the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s first president. But half of the organization’s officers were women who served as leaders of most of the local chapters. (Early Conservationists Promoted Bird Friendly Fashion)

Laura J. Martin  assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College and author of Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration writes:

“Britton argued that if women refused to purchase wildflowers from pushcart vendors, it would put an end to harvesting in the countryside, thereby protecting the ‘victims of the massacre exposed for sale in our city streets.’’ 

She also contended that weddings were a new menace to native plants. Britton and the WFPS members believed that women could change their behavior in the countryside and stop picking wildflowers just as they stopped using feathers. The early activities of the WFPS focused on educating the public.

With waves of immigrants coming to America they soon shifted their educational efforts from Anglo-Saxon women to the assimilation and even policing of these new arrivals.

Martin writes that local chapters of the WFPS developed and distributed educational pamphlets, lantern-slides, children’s books, and plays. Wildflower pageants performed in schools across America helped to shape children’s relationship to nature.

Enter Percy L. Ricker

The WFPS thrived during World War I with chapters forming across America. Although women comprised most of its membership, a few men held leadership roles by invitation.

According to the New York Botanical Garden’s site, Britton’s organization became The Wild Flower Preservation Society in 1925 in Washington, D. C. The director for forty years was Percy L. Ricker, retired Associate Botanist of the Plant Industry Station Society.

Laura J. Martin writes that Ricker:

“…began conspiring to take over the WFPS from Britton, claiming that under the leadership of women, wildflower preservation had become a ‘sentimental’ subject and that ‘professional botanists’—meaning men—had become ‘disgusted with the over-zealous efforts of individuals and organizations wishing to forbid all flower picking.’”

Although trailblazing female scientists were making strides into positions of recognition and leadership in the late 1800s and early 1900s, glass ceilings were still unbreakable.

Their Work Made A Difference

Although our natural landscape shrinks every day, the efforts of early Wildflower Activists paid off.

According to Douglas County News, In the 1890s, Edlowe, near Woodland Park, was one destination of the Wildflower Excursion run by the Colorado Midland. Tourists were picked armloads of the ubiquitous blue columbines in the area.

“The white and lavender Columbine, Aquilegia caerulea, was adopted as the official state flower on April 4, 1899 by an act of the General Assembly. In 1925, the General Assembly declared that it was the duty of all citizens to protect this rare species from needless destruction or waste.” (Douglas County News)

To further protect this fragile flower, laws prohibit digging or uprooting the flowers. The gathering of buds, blossoms and stems is limited by law to 25 in one day.

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