Barbara Worl has been a pioneer, in spirit and in deed, for much of her life. Like Gertrude Jekyll, her nineteenth-century English kinswoman, Worl has blazed a path in horticulture through her love of old roses, and the arts of photography and publishing that grew from it.
A Midwestern native of sturdy Quaker stock, Barbara Worl has been a life-long member of the Society of Friends, a Christian sect that holds dear equality, peace-making, and the Inner Light. Quaker practices of simple living, plain dress, and plain speech grow from these beliefs—all practices that Worl has followed in her life. Just after World War II, as a young woman, Worl moved from Indiana to the San Francisco Peninsula to enroll in Stan-ford University, from which she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English history and a minor in English literature; she later pursued graduate studies in the same fields.
Worl has long had a hand in the literary arts. In September 1950, she began her long association with Bell’s Bookstore on Emerson Street in downtown Palo Alto. Herbert Bell hired the young graduate, first for the accounting department; later, she moved on to those areas more akin to her spirit. She bought books for the children’s section, then built the fine garden collection, for which the shop is well known. She also founded Sweetbrier Press to reprint books, as well as to print postcards and desk calendars based on her photographs.
During her early tenure with the bookstore, Worl met Israel Harris, an African American supporter of the ’60s Black movement. At the cusp of the civil rights movement, Worl embraced Harris as her life partner. In so doing, she displayed the egalitarian values with which she had been raised, setting racial differences aside; the two were companions for forty years.
A Life with Plants
Worl’s passion for plants began early in life. A black and white snapshot captured Worl as a baby in her buggy clutching a tulip, its bulb haplessly dangling below. Years later in California, she learned to garden on local soil from Albert Wilson, a fellow Stanford graduate, gardening consultant, television personality, and author of How Does Your Garden Grow? When asked what books most influenced her garden style, she deftly puts a copy of Wilson’s book in the hand of the inquiring. Keen on developing a rose consciousness for the Peninsula and the state, she embraced Wilson’s “crusade for good gardening,” as well as his regional bent, captured in his book’s subtitle, For California by a Californian.
Broader influences came into play. Her talk at a 1970s Huntington Garden Symposium revealed other great teachers: old English rose books. Included among the authors of those books was Gertrude Jekyll (“I loved her books”), whose Roses for English Gardens, among many others, became a staple of Worl’s garden education. So, too, books by Graham Stuart Thomas, particularly his classic trilogy, The Old Shrub Roses, Shrub Roses of Today, and Climbing Roses Old and New, which belongs in every gardener’s library. Both writers captured Worl’s attention, and, in turn, the crowd that evening. Worl repeatedly visited England and Europe to study gardens, collect seeds, and listen to Thomas lecture, all the while buying books for Bell’s. She gained a firsthand education in garden beauty that has carried over to her work.
It is in the garden that Worl most strongly resembles Gertrude Jekyll. Both women preferred the simplicity of country life, and chose to live in rural settings in the suburbs, with ample space to garden: Jekyll in Sussex, England, and Worl in Menlo Park, California. Worl has remained on the San Francisco Peninsula for more than fifty years; a highlight of her work has been the making of three gardens. In them, particularly her home garden, she displayed a romantic garden style that emulates Jekyll’s work. Two of her gardens occur at the same location: an unincorporated cul-de-sac in Menlo Park in the midst of the burgeoning Silicon Valley. There, surrounded by her home garden, a charming rustic outpost, she and Harris lived until his death in 2006.
When Gregg Lowery and Phillip Robinson, noted rosarians and proprietors of Vintage Gardens Nursery in Sebastopol, California, toured her home garden, Lowrey praised her handiwork, “I like this garden. I do like this garden.” Worl later shared that she was “honored that he felt that way.” Worl duly earned his praise, for there is much to like in her garden. While an underlying order exists, abundant, loose, cascading, natural plantings smudge the lines. Drifts of color lead you down an ambling garden path. As did Jekyll before her, she has learned much from small cottage gardens —the mixed tangle of creepers, the happy associations of brethren flowers.
American soil deeply anchors her version of the cottage garden that flourishes in unbridled exuberance— so much so that Harris, at times, reined her in. “We cannot tear up the road,” he reminded Worl amidst her desire to plant yet more. Such concerns did not, however, deter her: “We were nothing if not bright enough to come up with ways to get around this!” She demonstrates economy in her use of space. Roses leap vertically, where she wove, bent, and trained their canes to climb, in Jekyllian fashion, upon any manner of structure: trellis, pergola, fence, or whatever offered support. Pots, too, provide yet more containers to house beloved plants. She gardens freely, her pioneer spirit at liberty from restraints of garden protocol. Worl, like her teacher, carved out a new romanticism—hers particular to the American democratic spirit.
The Cowper Street garden, on borrowed land in nearby Palo Alto and “a mere eight blocks from where I worked,” provided a way to expand her garden experiment. There, she “could easily do chores . . . before and after the day’s paid employment. As there was no electricity or running water, it was the darkness of evening that sent me home.” For twenty years, it housed the outpourings of her rose collection along with countless companion plants. When the inevitable time came to relinquish the land back to its owners, she disbanded the collection, finding good homes for plants that she could not squeeze into her home garden.
The style of her garden, as well as its contents, harks back to Jekyll. An inventory of roses at Jekyll’s Munstead Wood would include: ‘Aimée Vibert’ (a Noisette), ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’ (a Bourbon), the double Yellow Lady Banks (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’), R. x macrantha, and sweetbrier (R. rubiginosa), particularly the beautiful Penzance hybrids. A catalog of Worl’s garden would contain the same selections. Jekyll, moved by the beauty of the native sweetbrier, or eglantine, wrote in Roses for English Gardens, that it is “an indispensable Rose. So it is, with its beautifully fashioned, clear pink flowers that bestow rich fragrance. The beautiful Penzance hybrids derived from it should be in every garden.” Worl chimes in that she, too, grew these at her Cowper Street garden, favoring ‘Lady Penzance’ most. Her penchant for simplicity and the romantic carries over to roses. The wild sweetbrier rose so captured Worl’s imagination that she named her publishing press after it.
Worl’s life blossomed with her love of old roses. Neither Jekyll nor Worl grew roses to show or to cut, but for the natural beauty of the flowers, which “look like Flemish paintings.” Worl went so far as to comment that modern hybrid tea roses “look like sticks . . . and belong in a cutting garden, not in a flower garden.” Such passion led her, along with Miriam Wilkins and a handful of pioneering spirits, to champion the old roses. The California chapter of the Heritage Rose Society became their forum. They began a crusade to save these beautiful roses from extinction.
In the garden of an older home on Palo Alto’s Bryant Street grew five roses: ‘Duchesse de Brabant’, a four-seasons rose (Rosa damascena var. semperflorens), two forms of ‘La France’ (climbing and bush), and an unidentified rose, possibly a hybrid perpetual. One October, she stopped to take cuttings. That unidentified, foundling rose, with its shapely satiny pink flower, became her namesake, ‘Barbara Worl’. It also carries a series of other names: Grandmother’s Hat, Cornet, Mrs RG Sharmon- Crawford, and Northside Pink. Although the original roses are now long gone, all ripped out when the house was torn down, ‘Barbara Worl’ lives on. Her old rose collection, amassed from sources as diverse as Graham Stuart Thomas’s collection at Sunningdale Nursery in England to pioneer cemeteries in California’s Gold Country, chronicles the history of roses from the latter half of the nineteenth through the twentieth centuries.
Photography Follows Naturally
With her garden work a profound part of her life, Worl, like Jekyll, turned to photography to document it. Almost all of the photographs in Jekyll’s books are her own. Worl, too, used her own photographs as a means of financial support. Her Sweetbrier Press postcards and desk calendars, made from her photographs of gardens and flowers, have long been sold at Bell’s.
Both women ventured into publishing: Jekyll to write books on her experience gardening at Munstead Wood, Worl to publish books through Sweetbrier Press. Worl, however, turned to cards and calendars for her original projects, as books seldom sell as well. She published several small works: a reprint of the Tillotson’s 1959 Rose Catalog, and G a r d e n Open Today for the Heritage Rose Garden Tours in 1980. The large-formatted A Portfolio of Rose Hips: 12 Watercolors, by Jessie-Chizu Baer, was published in 1980. In that same year, Sweetbrier Press ambitiously reissued Henry Curtis’s Beauties of the Rose, with a new introduction and key by Leonie Bell. Roses from out of the past—when “the best roses were soft and lush, low centered and many-petalled,” like a crinoline petticoat— were chronicled in Beauties of the Rose. It offers a record of lost beauty and stirs longings in readers to plant these flowers before they are lost forever.
The similarities continue. Plain-speaking, simple in dress, scholarly in pursuits of garden work and other arts, these women were artisans. Handwork in many forms of arts and crafts appealed to them both. Jekyll was skilled with carpentry tools, her student Worl built her home’s bookcases. Each embroidered. Worl learned her craft from an Englishwoman, and then went on to embroider vestments for her local church.
Each woman held a spirited kinship with nature. When, at an early age, Worl read Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the story of the foundling Mowgli raised by kindly wolves touched her. “I identified with Mowgli. And, those were his brothers, all of those creatures.” And, so it is with Barbara Worl that no matter the language we speak, be it the law of the jungle, of roses, or of Mowgli’s Urdu, we are all Friends. The dynamic connection each woman felt with the natural world gave birth to a grace and beauty in the fine art of gardens.