Kentucky's pre-eminent botanist, the late Mary Wharton, fooled many people with her quiet demeanor. But Wharton was no shrinking violet.
She was more a steel magnolia, said Bill Bryant, retired chairman of the biology department at Thomas Moore College in Fort Mitchell.
"Before equal rights for women, Mary had to compete with men in the rough-and-tumble ecology community, and she became a leader in her field," Bryant said.
On Saturday morning, more than 50 friends, environmentalists, botanists and nature lovers gathered at Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the 278-acre preserve in southern Fayette County that Wharton established, to celebrate her 100th birthday. Born in 1912, Wharton died in 1991.
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The celebration included a full day of hikes, a talk by Bryant about Wharton as a botanist, educator and conservationist, and birthday cake decorated with shooting stars, a native wildflower found at Floracliff.
The event was sponsored by Floracliff and the Kentucky Native Plant Society.
Wharton's academic credentials, her lifelong research in the history and plant life of Kentucky and her deep love for the land made her a formidable opponent of highways, dams and subdivision she considered environmentally destructive.
"She was kind of shy, but firm and protective of her ideas and very determined to do the right thing," said Julian Campbell, a consulting botanist.
Wharton graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kentucky in 1935. She went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and earned a master's degree and, in 1945,a doctorate in botany.
She retired in 1974 from Georgetown College in Georgetown after almost 27 years as chairman of the biological sciences department.
Wharton's name is known to the public from two books she co-wrote with Roger W. Barbour— the original A Guide to Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky, a standard reference for anyone taking a wildflower walk; and Trees & Shrubs of Kentucky.
"She made wildflowers and trees accessible to the general public and popularized nature," Bryant said
One of Saturday's hikers, Ann Longsworth of Berea, had an autographed copy of the wildflower book that she and her mother have taken along when they have hiked in Floracliff. On a previous hike beside a swiftly moving stream, her mother accidently dropped the book in the water.
"I couldn't swim," Longsworth said. "but I forgot I couldn't swim, and I dove in after it." She rescued the book, and it dried out serviceably. "It was all rumpled, but it didn't matter," she recalled with a smile. "I still treasured it, and carried it for years."
Wharton began buying parcels of land on and near Elk Lick Creek in 1958. She donated the land as a conservation easement to the urban county government which means the property cannot be developed.
"Mary did something unique. She bought this land. Set up a non-profit, and endowed the sanctuary just to protect it. No public money was involved," said Zeb Weese, staff biologist with the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, who led one of the hikes.
Weese could think of only five or six other privately owned sanctuaries throughout the state.
Unlike Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, which is open to the public, Wharton envisioned her preserve as a place for research of botany, zoology and geology students. It is open to the public on guided hikes.
Oscar Geralds, Wharton's lawyer and fellow environmental activist, was asked Saturday if he thought she would have liked the birthday celebration with hikes through the sanctuary.
"She would have loved it," he said, chuckling, "As long as you stayed on the trail."