Ecological Restoration Began with the Wild and Wonderful Gardens of Early Female Botanists

by olivecarruthers

When historian and ecologist Laura J. Martin decided to write a history of ecological restoration, she didn’t think she would have to go back further than the 1980s to uncover its beginnings. Deep in the archives, she found evidence of a network of early female botanists from the turn of the 20th century. Martin’s book Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration brings their work back into the record. The nonfiction account tells the stories of Eloise Butler, Edith Roberts and the wild and wonderful gardens they planted and studied.


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Laura Martin: I found all of these, you know, gems of untold stories of women scientists in the early twentieth century, who really were laying the scientific foundation for restoration.

Sophie McNulty: I’m Sophie McNulty and I’m a producer for Lost Women of Science.

I worked on the first two seasons of the show before I moved to the UK and ended up working on a gardening podcast for the Royal Horticultural Society. I recently returned to Lost Women of Science and apropos of horticulture, I’m particularly excited to be hosting today’s episode on ecological restoration. 

This is quite the hot topic in the world of horticulture and environmental management at large. To give you a sense of just how hot it is, today billions are spent on ecological restoration projects each year, and the UN General Assembly declared 2021 to 2030 to be the UN decade on ecosystem restoration. But,the history of this field has been largely overlooked, and when it is told, women are often written out of the narrative.

And so today, we’re going to try to remedy that by zeroing in on important early restorationists who were themselves women. We’ll be focusing on botanists Eloise Butler and Edith Roberts. And to do this, I’m so pleased to welcome Laura Martin, a professor at Williams College and author of Wild By Design, The Rise of Ecological Restoration.

Hi, Laura. Thanks for coming on the show.

Laura Martin: Thank you. I’m very excited to speak with you today, Sophie.

Sophie McNulty: So to start, before we go back in time to the stories of these early restorationists, I want to quickly define terms. So what exactly is ecological restoration and how is it different from say, conservation or preservation?

Laura Martin: So there’s, there’s now an international organization of scientists, restoration ecologists, the Society for Ecological Restoration, that defines ecological restoration as an attempt to repair an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.

And in Wild by Design, I define restoration a little bit differently. I define it as an attempt to collaborate with non-human species, in order to create an environment. So I chose the term collaborate over the term assist because I think what unifies all of these different attempts to do restoration is a desire to find, to strike some balance between controlling nature and letting nature do its own thing, letting nature be autonomous.

Sophie McNulty: Mmhm

Laura Martin: So you can think about removing non native species as one type of restoration, but that’s just only one of many different practices. There’s also breeding species in domestic spaces or in laboratories and then re-releasing them to the environment.

There’s removing dams in order to restore hydrological connectivity between streams or rivers. There’s burning in a controlled way, burning forests or prairies in order to simulate natural wildfire for species that are fire-adapted.

Sophie McNulty: Yeah, there’s a great example in the introduction of your book. You describe the way scientists were trying to save the whooping crane population in North America, and you know,  very much involved people, you know, dressing up in costumes, pretending to be mama cranes in order to raise these birds in captivity, you know, before working out how to release them into the wild, or even if this was a possibility. So all that to say, there’s clearly this huge range of things that ecological restoration can be. But turning to the history of this field, what are the roots of ecological restoration, and what surprised you as you look back in time?

Laura Martin: I went into the project kind of expecting that restoration would have a very recent history. The Society for Ecological Restoration, in their kind of internal histories, cites the founding of the society in the 1980s as the beginning of ecological restoration. And if they do go further back in time, they credit Aldo Leopold as the kind of soul inventor of ecological restoration.

Leopold was the author of Sand County Almanac, a pretty famous environmental text, and he was involved in the University of Wisconsin Madison Prairie Restoration Project in the 1930s. And so when I started to do this project, I thought, you know, okay, I’m going to be looking at what management has looked like since the 1980s.

And to my great surprise, I found a much deeper history and a longer, a much longer chronology and tradition of scientists thinking about how to restore degraded biotic communities.

Sophie McNulty: Yeah, you know it seems from your book that when you go back and you look at this deeper history,this deeper tradition of ecological restoration that you just described, that many of the people involved in this early era were actually women, though maybe they were a bit more difficult to find.

Laura Martin: Yeah, so I had, in doing this, preliminary research for the book, gone to the the archives of the Ecological Society of America. And this was the first professional society of ecologists in the United States. It was founded in 1915. 

And that society was comprised almost entirely of men and all of the leadership positions were held by men, but I knew from general history of science that there at the time and, before that had been a number of really important influential women botanists. And so I was curious about why weren’t these women botanists in the Ecological Society of America when all of these, these men were and what were they doing, what were they working on at that time?

And I found that quite a few of them were working on what we today would call ecological restoration very directly. They were doing things like founding Native plant societies, they were doing experiments on native plants to see how to propagate them and how to enable them to flourish, and they were really setting the groundwork for the work that Aldo Leopold and his team did in the 1930s.

So this was, this was work being done by women scientists 10, 20, 30 years prior to the University of Wisconsin Restoration project.

And I found that all of these, you know, gems of untold stories of women scientists in the early twentieth century who really were laying the scientific foundation for restoration.

Sophie McNulty: I feel like with Lost Women of Science, this happens so often where you’ll read a paper and you’re like, oh, who’s this person who’s quoted in the footnotes of having done this fieldwork for this research? And you go and you find out that it’s a woman who did all this, you know, groundbreaking work, but she isn’t given proper credit and she’s not part of these large societies like the Ecological Society of America you just mentioned, which, I meant to add, is different from the Ecological Restoration Society founded in the 1980s.  

Laura Martin: That is correct. and again, in Wild by Design, it hadn’t been my, my initial, my initial project, and I hope that listeners will take up the call to do some further research into these women scientists, because there’s, there’s still a bunch of, there’s still a unanswered questions about their, their lives and their research, but I found that it really was a network, a robust network of women that developed the idea of ecological gardening and wild gardening, which was this first incarnation of the idea of restoration, the idea that people would help species survive, but that they would limit how far they intervened so that the species still had some autonomy.

They were kind of guided by natural processes. Uh, one ecologist who was one of the kind of founders of ecological gardening, Eloise Butler called this laissez faire, the idea of you know, planting a plant and then not you know, not trimming its leaves, not taking weeds out.

It was both about having a more natural aesthetic, but I think also really it was about the experience of the plants themselves. The idea that the plant should be allowed to grow as they would grow without constant human intervention.

Sophie McNulty: So you just mentioned Eloise Butler there, which is a great segway, because I want to get into the stories of both Eloise Butler and Edith Roberts, so to start, who was Eloise Butler and why is she a key figure in this history? 

Laura Martin: So Eloise Butler was the scientist who created the first native plant garden and research facility in North America. I think her life really illustrates what it was like to be a woman botanist at the turn of the 20th century. She was born in rural Maine in 1851 to parents who were teachers.

And we have the benefit of the fact that in her 70s, before her death, Eloise Butler wrote a memoir. It wasn’t published, but we still have it.

And so we know her account of what it was like to be a scientist in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. And so she wrote in her own words, at that time and place, so in Maine in the 1860s, 1870s, there was no other career than teaching that was thought of for a studious girl. So she felt, very constrained in her, what her career would be.

And she wrote in the margins of her, of her memoir, “In my next incarnation, I shall not be a teacher.” And she decided that she wanted to retire from teaching. She really didn’t enjoy it, but she wanted to continue to do science. By this point she was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She led a petition of science teachers in Minneapolis to the, the city council to establish a native plant preserve, which she calls the Wild Botanic Garden, and her goal there was, again, we have her own words. It was to show plants as living things and their adaptations to their environment to display in miniature, the rich and varied flora of Minnesota and to teach the principles of forestry. 

Her initial goal was to establish a teaching site. She felt like, you know, with the expansion and development of cities like Minneapolis, teachers were losing the sites that they would take students to in order to teach them species, in order to teach them ecology.

And so she wanted to make sure that there was a site that was close enough to schools preserved as an outdoor laboratory for students to teach them the fundamentals of botany and ecology. Um, and I think what’s interesting is this petition convinces the board to establish this, this preserve, but then she doesn’t just leave it as a preserve, she decides to use it as an active experimental site and to try and do a, a different type of botanical garden. So at the time, botanical gardens were typically organized by evolutionary relationship, or they were organized just aesthetically by color or by size, and Eloise Butler really wanted to organize the plants within this research site by their habitat requirements and by their environmental conditions and to display them in the sorts of situations and communities that they would be found in, in the wild.

And so she, she convinces, through sheer tenacity, she convinces the, the city council to appoint her as curator of this botanical garden. And she works to bring hundreds of species to the site. So just between 1912 and 1916, she collects 262 seedlings and seeds and specimens and brings them to the botanic garden and kind of experiments with how to propagate them and how to get them to survive in the landscape.

Sophie McNulty: What was the work of collecting these specimens like for her? Can you tell me about some of these specimen-collecting expeditions?

Laura Martin: Yeah, it was very difficult, very physically demanding fieldwork. Eloise Butler was doing this fieldwork and she was doing it in long late Victorian era skirts and fancy hats. It’s incredible—she called this “bog trotting” and so basically anytime she went anywhere to see friends or family, she would bring along collecting tools. She was on a train ride to Toronto once, and her train broke down, and while, instead of just waiting in the train car, she got out, hiked two miles, and collected epilobium,

Sophie McNulty: Oh my gosh.

Laura Martin: seeds to bring back to the, the garden.

So, you know, she and her collaborators went to great lengths to acquire some of the species that they were trying to, to bring into the wild botanic garden.

And once they had collected these species, they also did experiments on them. Butler kept meticulous notes about what methods worked to keep species alive and what did not. She has also detailed notes about the emergence and flowering times of species at the Botanical Garden in the 1910s and 1920s.

And that could be a resource for people interested in understanding the effects of climate change on flowering time.

Sophie McNulty: Yeah, quickly just commenting on her bog trotting specimen collecting adventures, there’s a photo that you include in the book of Eloise Butler kind of out, in a bog, and she is wearing, you know, as you say, this long, looks incredibly heavy skirt, and this fabulous hat, and it looks like it has like little flowers in it and stuff, like a huge hat and she’s, you know, standing on a log over this bog, kind of like picking up, different sticks and plants and things, and yeah, it’s, it is an amazing photo.

Laura Martin: Yeah and she was, she, you know, despite dressing that way, I think she was well that she was defying gender norms at the time, just by working, you know, by being a scientist, by working in those sorts of environments and not being afraid of getting muddy and getting wet and, and enjoying it and encouraging other people and other women to do it.

Sophie McNulty: We’ll get into the stories of these other women after the break.


Sophie McNulty: So beyond Eloise Butler, who were the other women leading the way with ecological restoration in the early 1900s, and what do we know about them?

Laura Martin: So the, the richness of what we know about Eloise Butler can be contrasted to another woman that I talk about in Wild By Design. Edith Roberts, who was a botany professor at Vassar College in the 1920s and 1930s, and she started the first ecological restoration experiment, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about that, but this was more than a decade before Aldo Leopold’s restoration experiment.This was a really important site in the history of restoration.

But all we have is the, the scientific papers that Edith. Roberts published. We don’t have anything written in her voice besides those, those peer-reviewed scientific papers. And so we just know much less about what her experience was as a woman ecologist. And what her thoughts were about where the field should go.

Sophie McNulty: But what do we know about her work? Can you kind of paint me a picture of this ecological laboratory that she started at Vassar and how it was both similar and different from the work that Eloise Butler was doing?

Laura Martin: Yes, so Roberts received a doctorate in botany from the University of Chicago in 1915. So again, very rare for, for that time. And after that she was hired as a professor of botany at Vassar College, and as soon as she arrived there, she began developing plans to establish an ecological laboratory and her goals were twofold.

It was to train students in the new discipline of ecology. And her other goal was to do experiments to see whether native plants could be reestablished on degraded lands. So, in this experiment, Roberts and her students cleared around two acres of grass and poison ivy and shrubs and just kind of weedy non-native species from a streamside that was on campus.

And they planted 600 species that they had collected from across the East Coast of the United States, arranging them into 30 different plant communities that they felt represented the diversity of ecological communities in eastern North America.

So what Roberts was doing that was different than what Butler was doing is that Roberts was really asking, what can we do with degraded landscapes? Can we succeed in re-establishing Native ecological communities on them? Whereas, Eloise Butler was really working at an already botanically interesting site and she wasn’t trying to get rid of species. She was kind of adding species to the landscape.

Sophie McNulty: So, why are the stories of people like Eloise Butler and Edith Roberts so often left out from this history of ecological restoration?

Why do we only kind of hear about the Aldo Leopolds of the world or kind of things that happened much more recently in the 1980s?

Laura Martin: The archives and stories of women scientists are missing from institutional archives, and I think there’s two reasons for that. One reason is that women were actively excluded from professional societies and from universities. So if you’re interested in studying the history of ecology and you go to the Ecological Society of America archives, or you go to archives that say the University of Chicago, where there were a lot of ecologists employed in the early 20th century, you’re not going to find the records of women scientists because women scientists were not allowed in those spaces. 

And so it can be hard as a storyteller to, to find people to be able to really paint a picture of what, what the work was like at the time and what it was like to be a woman in science.

And I think separately from that, there also were direct conspiracies to keep women out of leadership positions in early environmental movements and early conservation organizations and efforts. In the book, I talked briefly about the experience of Elizabeth Britton, who, as I mentioned, was a co-founder of the New York Botanical Garden.

And also she was a renowned expert on, on ferns and mosses. And she created the Wildflower Preservation Society in 1901, in order to try and raise awareness about native plant species and the need to protect and restore them. And this was a very successful society. It expanded during World War I and afterwards establishing chapters across the country. And women accounted for most of its membership,

The society became attractive enough that in 1924, a U.S. Department of Agriculture botanist, Percy Ricker, who was a member of the Washington, D.C. chapter, you know, began conspiring to take over the society from Elizabeth Britton. And he argued that under the leadership of women, the society had become a radical organization, and in using this word specifically, he was echoing the language used to disparage women’s suffrage activists, and so he, when Elizabeth Britton had to be out of town for another meeting, he organized a hostile takeover of the society and became president.

Sophie McNulty: Horrible.

Laura Martin: Right, so when people write about the Wildflower Preservation Society, they’re often writing about later decades and they’re saying, oh, it was run by Percy Ricker and there’s just a total lost history of the many women scientists that founded that organization. And I think what’s really interesting there, too, is that Ricker moves the Wildflower Preservation Society from a restoration model to a preservation model. Restoration is very hands on, it’s about intervening in ecosystems, whereas preservation is very hands off. It’s the idea that people should be apart from nature and that we should protect nature from people.

He says restoration isn’t the way and gardening is not the way to save native species. What we need to do is to set aside wild plant preserves. And I think it’s, you know, it’s telling that his efforts really didn’t go anywhere. The, the native plant preserves that we have in the United States were established by garden societies and the efforts of people like Eloise Butler and Edith Roberts, and not through any of Percy Ricker’s proposals or that kind of preservation model.

Sophie McNulty: So, Eloise Butler and Edith Roberts with their wild botanic gardens slash outdoor laboratories, they were intervening with the land. So in some ways, could we say that they were ahead of their time?

Laura Martin: I would say that they laid the groundwork for what’s happening today, that they were maybe not so much ahead of their time, but they were the main actors in their time. There was a large network of botanists and many of them women who were doing this work in the early 20th century and we can turn to it. If we understand the history, we can use it as a resource to think about what options are available to us today.

Sophie McNulty: That brings me perfectly to my final question. So to end, I want to turn to you for a moment. You know, you started your career as wetlands ecologist, working in the field before turning to the history of the work. And you write in the opening of the book, Wild by Design, that fieldwork offered insights into how to establish and care for a particular species, but it did not offer solutions to ongoing ecological degradation.

So, in what ways do you think turning to the history of people like Eloise Butler, Edith Roberts, or Elizabeth Britton has given you hope? And would you say that their stories offer any sort of solutions to our future?

Laura Martin: I do often miss fieldwork and working directly with species, but I think that history allows us at the end of the day, to imagine how things could be different. It teaches us that nothing is predetermined and that nothing is without alternative. And so, the perspective of, of doing archival research and of history really, really just emphasizes how things could have turned out differently.

And I think it brings me to reflect upon the fact that none of the environmental degradation that we are facing today was inevitable. It all results from the choices of individuals, of powerful individuals, and of societies to operate in particular ways. And so we can go back to examples of people before us to understand how they imagined alternative relationships with the environment and how they imagined doing something to try and reverse the environmental harms that were happening at their moments in time.

Sophie McNulty: What a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Laura, for coming on Lost Women of Science.

Laura Martin: Thank you, Sophie.

Sophie McNulty: This episode of Lost Women of Science Conversations was produced by me, Sophie McNulty. Many thanks to Laura Martin for taking the time to talk to us. Lexi Atiya was our fact checker, Lizzie Younan composes all of our music, and Karen Meverack designs our art. Thanks to Jeff DelVisio at our publishing partner, Scientific American.

Thanks also to executive producers Amy Scharf and Katie Hafner, as well as the senior managing producer, Deborah Unger. Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Anne Wojcicki Foundation. We’re distributed by PRX. Thanks for listening and do subscribe to Lost Women of Science at so you never miss an episode.

Further Reading

Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration, by Laura J. Martin, Harvard University Press, 2022.
The Women Who Saved Wildflowers, by Laura J. Martin, Sierra, June 2, 2022.
“Women’s Work” in Science, 1880-1910, by Margaret W. Rossiter, Isis, Volume 71, Number 3, Sep., 1980.
The Wild Gardener: The Life and Selected Writings of Eloise Butler, by Martha E. Hellander, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1992.
Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America, by Philip J. Pauly, Harvard University Press, 2008.

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