Mary Eugenia Wharton

(12 October 1912 – 28 November 1991)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium (NCU) has cataloged about 180 vascular plant specimens collected by Mary E. Wharton. All are from Kentucky. The earliest was collected in 1933, the latest in 1968.  As we continue to catalog our collections without doubt we will find more specimens collected by Dr. Wharton.

“Mary Eugenia Wharton was born in Jessamine County, Kentucky on October 12, 1912. At age four she moved to Lexington, where as a child she enjoyed experiencing nature in her family’s garden. From her grandmother she learned the parts of a flower, beginning an interest in plants that carried on throughout her life.

At the University of Kentucky, Wharton majored in botany and geology. After receiving her bachelor’s degree there, she transferred to the University of Michigan, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees. She initially wanted to pursue research as a career, but was asked to teach some classes in Michigan and found that she enjoyed teaching and especially loved exciting her students about new topics. After a couple of brief teaching jobs she acquired a position at Georgetown College [in Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky]. There she taught classes for almost 30 years and became head of the Biology Department.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Herbarium curates specimens collected by Dr. Mary E. Wharton. Image courtesy of Floracliff Nature Preserve.

Mary Wharton valued the importance of field studies in botany; she searched for plants throughout Kentucky, gathering data that she would later use in her books. In 1942, she discovered an unnamed species of dewberry in Montgomery Co. that was named in her honor, Rubus whartoniae. She was a serious plant collector. A great many of her collections are in the University of Kentucky Herbarium and her beautifully done specimens are still very useful for reference and teaching.

Wharton was an avid writer, collaborating with Roger Barbour on field guides such as Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky (1971) and Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky (1973). These books were the first of their kind for the state and have been very influential to both serious students and amateur nature lovers. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky, still in print, is an excellent reference and learning tool for the non-technical user. The breadth of her interests and her love of the Bluegrass were reflected in other publications such as Horse World of the Bluegrass and Peach Leather and Rebel Grey. Wharton’s last book, Bluegrass Land and Life, was also a collaboration with Barbour and is considered to be the result of a lifetime of research on the Inner Bluegrass region. Wharton was very passionate about the uniqueness of this area and worked hard to educate others about why it should not be over developed. Her advocacy for the land was exhibited by her battles over the damming of the Red River and the original proposal of the widening of Paris Pike that would have destroyed a quintessential Bluegrass landscape. With her help, both proposals were successfully defeated.

Dr. Mary E. Wharton at Floracliff. Image courtesy of Floracliff Nature Preserve.

From 1958 to 1989, Mary Wharton purchased a series of parcels along the Kentucky River with the intention of creating a nature sanctuary. Her dream was to protect the native plant and animal communities unique to the region and provide a place where people could learn about and research its biodiversity. She named her land Floracliff and in 1976, she protected a portion of it from development and timber extraction through a scenic easement. This was the first use of a scenic easement in Kentucky. In 1987, she established a non-profit to oversee care of the land after her death. Mary Wharton died on November 28, 1991. Her dreams and vision continue to guide Floracliff today.”1

Ron Jones writes of Dr. Wharton’s legacy, “Another major study in the 1940s was a Ph.D. dissertation by Mary E. Wharton on the flora and vegetation of the Devonian-Mississippian black shale regions of Kentucky. This study of the Knobs region, the most comprehensive regionwide study yet attempted in Kentucky, resulted in the documentation of over 1,000 taxa in the area. One of Wharton’s collections of a dewberry species was named in her honor, Rubus whartoniae. Her study was done out of the University of Michigan, but over 6,000 specimens were donated to McFarland’s growing collection at the University of Kentucky. Wharton was associated with Georgetown College for the remainder of her professional career. During her long career, she, in collaboration with Roger Barbour, produced a series of popular books dealing with the Kentucky flora, including books on wildflowers and ferns (Wharton & Barbour 1971), trees and shrubs (1973), and Bluegrass Land & Life (1991). This latter work represented the culmination of her outstanding career; it included a list of 1, 149 plant species of the flora of the Inner Bluegrass and was her final plea for protection of the disappearing natural resources of the Bluegrass. Perspectives on the life of Mary Wharton include those of Meijer [Meijer, W. (1992) Mary Wharton. Kentucky Native Plant Society Newsletter 7(1): 2-3] and Wieland [Wieland, C. (1992) Mary Eugenia Wharton, 1912-1991. Kentucky Native Plant Society Newsletter 7(1): 1-2.].”2


Wharton, M.E. 1945. Floristics and vegetation of the Devonian-Mississippian black shale region of Kentucky. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Wharton, M.E. and R. W. Barbour. 1971. A guide to the wildflowers and ferns of Kentucky. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.
Wharton, M.E. and R. W. Barbour.  1973. Trees & shrubs of Kentucky. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.
William S. Bryant, Wharton, M. E., Martin, W. H., & Johnnie B. Varner. 1980. The Blue Ash-Oak Savanna: Woodland, a Remnant of Presettlement Vegetation in the Inner Bluegrass of Kentucky. Castanea, 45(3), 149–165.
Wharton, Mary E., Bruce Frederick Denbo, and Clyde T. Burke.  1980.  The Horse World of the Bluegrass.  John Bradford Press, Lexington, Kentucky.
Jones, Martha McDowell Buford (author); Mary E. Wharton and Ellen F. Williams (editors).  1986.  Peach Leather and Rebel Grey:  Bluegrass Life and the War, 1860-1865, Farm and Social Life, Famous Horses, Tragedies of War, Diary and Letters of a Confederate Wife.  Helicon Co., Lexington, Kentucky.
Wharton, M.E. and R. W. Barbour.  1991. Bluegrass land & life: Land character, plants, & animals of the Inner Bluegrass Region of Kentucky: Past, present, & future. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.



  1.  Dr. Mary Wharton.  2021.  Floracliff Nature Sanctuary.  accessed on 30 September 2022.
  2. Jones, Ronald L. 2005. Plant life of Kentucky: an illustrated guide to the vascular flora. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.  (pages 81-82)