Dakota Datebook: The woman who made N.D. flowers famous

Fannie Mahood Heath learned gardening at an early age, and made North Dakota flowers famous the world over.

This is the time of year we thumb through seed catalogues, but many of those seeds are available only because of the work of one of the most famous gardeners to come out of North Dakota – Fannie Mahood Heath, who was born on this day in 1864 in Wykoff, Minnesota. At the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, a picture of Fannie was exhibited with the following title, “Fannie Mahood Heath: The Woman who Made North Dakota Flowers Famous the World Over.”

Fannie learned gardening early. Her grandmother gave Fannie her own small garden plot when she was only seven. Fannie’s father, John Mahood, had learned about the medicinal value of plants from Native Americans during the California gold rush, and the whole family loved flowering plants.

Fannie’s family moved to Grand Forks when she was 16, and a year later she married Frank Heath and homesteaded with him west of the city. Gone were the lush woodlands of her youth. Now she contended with wind, fickle rainfall and alkali soil. “We weren’t told how difficult it was going to be when we moved here,” she later said.

To protect the farm from wind, she planted lilac bushes and fir saplings, but the firs died. Heath began to study the local flora, and soon successfully circled the farm with a shelterbelt of native willows, cottonwoods and box elders in addition to her lilacs. She also studied the dirt and was the first person to neutralize alkaline soil by pouring vinegar on it until it stopped bubbling.

Many tried to discourage the Heaths, but through trail and error, they developed a flourishing yard of flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Fannie corresponded with horticulturists across the country, and was soon exchanging seeds with people from around the world. Some seeds worked, but some didn’t; either way, she kept careful records.

The homestead started gaining local attention, and on weekends, the Heaths became hosts to hundreds of tourists. When one neighbor particularly admired one of her flowers, Fannie informed him she’d gotten them from his pasture!

The seeds Fannie sent out into the world brought in orders for more – people in England, Norway and China were thrilled with the new flowers they were discovering. Now, as Fannie watched the surrounding prairie succumbing to the plow, she embarked on another mission – to conserve and promote North Dakota’s native plants before they were exterminated.

Within the next few years, Fannie was writing articles and traveling the country to lecture on North Dakota’s native plants. Unfortunately, the locals weren’t always interested. The Superintendent of London’s Royal Gardens consoled her by saying, “Native plants are a lot like prophets – they’re not popular in their own country.”

Nevertheless, Fannie pressed on with her research and, in 1920, was so highly regarded that she was asked to help establish the National Horticulture Society. Three years later, she co-authored the book, Perennial Flowers in North Dakota. By 1925, her four acres of gardens included over 450 varieties of shrubs and flowers, but she could no longer host the throngs of eager visitors.

After Fannie died in 1931, the gardens sadly dwindled and finally disappeared altogether.

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