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Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – March 27, 2023


The Women of Mt. Cuba

By Alana Pugh

Mt. Cuba Center is a place full of fascinating history. It takes no less than a village to transform dry, desecrated, barren farmland into a teeming hub of biodiversity in less than 100 years.  

In honor of Women’s History Month, it is fitting to recognize the contributions and accomplishments of the women of Mt. Cuba’s past and present. Decades of women leading, collaborating, and innovating have contributed substantially to Mt. Cuba’s mission of inspiring an appreciation for the beauty and value of native plants and a commitment to protect the habitats that sustain them.  

Pamela Copeland sits outside near the Round Garden at Mt. Cuba Center.

Image 1: Pamela Copeland seated near the Round Garden. 

Pamela Copeland 

In the early 1930s, Lammot and Pamela Copeland found the ideal landscape that would later become Mt. Cuba Center. Newlywed and looking for a place to establish a home, they purchased property near the tiny village of Mt. Cuba nestled among rolling hills reminiscent of Mrs. Copeland’s home in Connecticut. In the decades that followed, the Copelands transformed this fallow farmland into ecologically thriving native plant gardens.  

Mrs. Copeland had an eye for design – form, textures, color, spaces, and more were meticulously noted and tracked as her garden grew. She equated a botanical garden to visual art and was a skillful creator.  She often spent months mulling over singular decisions and was apt to get into the gardens herself. The cracked, dry earth began to heal with the cover of plants, bringing an abundance of wildlife signifying the success of the restoration.  

As the years passed, her vision became more focused on creating a native plant garden that would inspire an appreciation for the beauty and value of native plants. It was her understanding that she could help introduce new plants to the public and conduct research on them, aiding their propagation and conservation. She also knew that protecting more wildland would inevitably lead to the protection of more wildflowers, and she advocated for promoting interest in birds, moths, butterflies, and insects that indicate healthy, functional ecosystems.  

Mrs. Copeland passed away in 2001, but her legacy is everlasting as the messages, values, and practices she established continue to reach others, creating rippling effects in native plant gardening.  

Black and white portrait of Marian Coffin.

Image 2: A portrait of landscape architect, Marian Coffin. 

Marian Coffin 

In a time when the field of landscape architecture was cutthroat and almost exclusively male, Marian Coffin secured her status by creating remarkable work featuring her signatures of dramatic contrasts in color, the inclusion of wildflowers and woodland plantings, and site unity. Her adventurous approach to landscape architecture and willingness to innovate made her a sought-after designer.  

Coffin graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1904 as one of only four women in the entire college. She entered an unsparing industry – particularly for women – and found that the strongly male-dominated architectural firms were unwilling to hire women. Her solution was establishing her own firm in 1905.  

After cultivating a renowned reputation in landscape architecture, Henry Francis du Pont, Founder of Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library, recommended Coffin’s craftmanship to the Copelands in the late 1940s, towards the end of her career. Mrs. Copeland found Coffin’s concept of sweeps of individual varieties of plant material in formal gardens intriguing, along with Coffin’s knack for adding varying levels of height when composing a space.  

An image of the Round Garden at Mt. Cuba Center, designed by Marian Coffin.

Image 3: A modern photo of the Round Garden at Mt. Cuba. 

Coffin designed the South Garden and the Round Garden, but traces of her touch can be found throughout the rest of the gardens. The Round Garden is easily recognizable by the inclusion of a central Maltese cross pool and a ranging display of colors from annuals and perennials.  

Coffin became one of the few female landscape architects to breach the scope of solely residential designs. In addition to designing the University of Delaware campus plan and Mt. Cuba, Coffin is known for the gardens at Gibraltar, Winterthur, and Caumsett State Historic Park. You can learn more about her life and work through Preservation Delaware. 

Recent and Current Women of Mt. Cuba 

Women continue to play an important role at Mt. Cuba, both in the recent past and today. Mt. Cuba opened to the public in 2013, and there were many women who supported the organization through the transition from private estate to public entity, such as Jeanne Frett, who served as the first research program director at Mt. Cuba. Frett is responsible for initiating the propagation of native plants at Mt. Cuba, and her interest in rare and unusual plants led Mt. Cuba to establish the Trillium and Hexastylis collections.  

Another notable woman from Mt. Cuba’s recent past is Donna Wiley, who started her career at Mt. Cuba in the summer of 1982, secured her full-time position as greenhouse grower in 1985, and eventually became the Formal Gardens horticulturist. She is known for her keen eye for color and design, and expertise in both container gardening and floral design.  

After many noteworthy women aided in the creation of this institution, it is no wonder that Mt. Cuba attracts women of the same esteem today. Women continue to play significant roles in Mt. Cuba’s journey, collaborating to uphold a legacy of conservation, education, beauty, and impactful and inspirational guest experiences. 

Leirion Sorensen gazes up at tulip poplars at Mt. Cuba Center.

Image 4: Leirion Sorensen, gardens manager at Mt. Cuba. 

The women of Mt. Cuba lead steadfastly, making up half of the leadership positions in the organization. While some, like Dr. Ellen Lake, director of conservation and research, Amy Highland, director of collections and conservation, and Leirion Sorensen, gardens manager, are making a reputable mark in native plant research, conservation, and horticulture; others, like Dorothy Leventry, director of education and guest experience, and Caroline Ralston, director of marketing, communications, and membership, play a major role in furthering Mt. Cuba’s mission and creating a welcoming and educational place for guests to learn and grow.  

This month, we featured a few of the remarkable women of Mt. Cuba on our social media channels.  Visit @mtcubacenter on Instagram and Facebook to learn more about the talented women who fill roles in arboriculture, horticulture, conservation, research, and public programming.