The Writing Half of the Alice-Ellis Team
November 6, 1868
Today is the birthday of the botanist and garden writer Alice Lounsberry.
(Note: Online databases report the date of birth as 1873 - which is incorrect as Alice was already two years old on an 1870 census with her brother and parents.)
Alice was a New Yorker, and she developed a love for botany as a young girl. In her mid-twenties, she was already serving as a board member for the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).
But Alice is best known for her botanical books written with her dear friend and collaborator - the Australian botanical illustrator Ellis Rowan. So we have Alice and Ellis - and here's the fabulous story of how they met.
In the late 1890s, Ellis decided to travel to New York. She caused a bit of a sensation during her first trip to the States a few years earlier. This trip was no different - except that Ellis contracted influenza after her arrival, and she needed to be hospitalized.
Like Alice, New Yorkers read about Ellis's illness, and they sent cards and flowers to her hospital room to cheer her. Now Alice had an enormous sense of admiration for Ellis, and she felt she needed to do something more personal for her. So, Alice decided to hand-deliver a box of fresh wildflowers she had handpicked to the hospital and gave them to Ellis's nurse. Ellis was thoroughly charmed by the bouquet and the card which read, "From one flower seeker to another - and an admirer of your work."
The following day, Alice visited Ellis. Even though Alice was twenty years younger than Ellis, the two hit it off. They spent an entire afternoon discussing botany and their work. When Alice offered to show Ellis where she liked to botanize for wildflowers, it was the incentive Ellis needed to get her health back on track.
When Alice invited her to illustrate a book on Wildflowers she had been asked to write, their fates as writer and painter were jointly sealed.
Together, they produced three books:
A Guide to the Wild Flowers (1899) describing around 500 wildflowers. A Guide to the Trees (1900) describing nearly 200 trees & shrubs. And, Southern Wild Flowers & Trees (1901) where Alice wrote in the preface:
"To learn something of the history, the folklore and the uses of southern plants and to see rare ones growing in their natural surroundings, Mrs. Rowan and I traveled in many parts of the south, always exercising our best blandishments to get the people of the section to talk with us. Through the mountainous region, we drove from cabin to cabin, and nowhere could we have met with greater kindness and hospitality."
While they were working on their book on Southern Wildflowers, Alice and Ellis's time together was marred by tragedy. They were surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains when a telegram came for Ellis. Her only son, Eric, had died in South Africa. He was 22 years old.
After finishing these books, the two women went their separate ways. Alice continued to write after working with Ellis - but without Ellis's artwork, her books failed to attract the same level of popularity.
In 1910, Alice wrote a book called Gardens Near the Sea. In this book, Alice shared her thoughts on the garden:
“For the garden is not only a place in which to make things grow and to display the beautiful flowers of the earth but a place that should accord with the various moods of its admirers. It should be a place in which to hold light banter, a place in which to laugh, and, besides, should have a hidden corner in which to weep. But above all, perhaps, it should be a place of sweet scent and sentiment.”
After suffering a stroke, Alice Lounsberry died at the age of 81 on November 20, 1949.