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A Horticultural Champion


August 17, 2022

Discover the Mettle of GCA Member-at-Large Margaret Bell Douglas

Margaret Bell Douglas was an extraordinary woman whose legacy lives on both inside and outside of The Garden Club of America. Born in Montreal, Canada in 1890, she was well-traveled as a child due to her father’s work as a geologist. As a young woman studying abroad, she was presented to Queen Victoria at the Court of St. James. However, it was her gift for horticulture that made her a nationally recognized and respected figure. In 1952, a GCA medal was created in her honor. Designed by Art Deco sculptor Rene P. Chambellan, the Margaret Douglas Medal is awarded for notable service to the cause of conservation education. In 1954, she was awarded the GCA’s Achievement Medal and in 1991, she was posthumously inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame.

As The Garden Club of America was growing in the early 20th century, there was an at-large membership category for those who lived in areas without a locally affiliated club. Margaret Bell Douglas became a member-at-large of the GCA beginning in 1921 and later served as chair of this group.

Her interest in plants and gardening began in Arizona where her husband Walter Douglas’s railroad and mining executive career had taken the family. Margaret and her children often escaped the summer heat by taking the train to Santa Barbara, California. It was during these years that Margaret began to develop her interest in plants and gardening and later supervised tile landscaping of the Copper Queen Hospital. Next, she and her husband hired Santa Barbara landscape architect Carmillo Fenzi to design a garden for the new Tucson Depot for the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad. She also provided flower and vegetable seeds for a garden contest to improve the isolated and dreary railroad settlements along the rail line. In addition, she oversaw the garden designs and installations at her homes in Arizona and New York. 

When her husband’s career took them to Mexico for nine years, she worked to improve native varieties of corn, flax, and other crops, including bringing papaya to Mexico, designing gardens, staging flower shows, and hosting a 1937 GCA trip to Mexico.

During WWII, she was active in both New York and Arizona, hosting events and meetings, working with cultural institutions such as the New York Botanical Gardens and The Horticultural Society of New York, and designing gardens for four military bases in Arizona. Her community outreach did not slow down after the death of her husband. In Phoenix, she became a member of the Phoenix Garden Club and helped her friend Gertrude Webster establish the Desert Botanical Gardens, donating 1,500 specimens to its herbarium. In the early 1950s, she worked to save Camelback Mountain from development and participated in the movement to save California’s redwoods. Following her death in 1963, the GCA Bulletin wrote, “All the honors that Mrs. Douglas received can never express what an extraordinary woman she was. Her vitality, her great ability and knowledge, and her kindness were known to all of us.”



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