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. There she taught classes for almost 30 years and became head of the Biology Department.
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. 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.
In the late 1950s, Mary Wharton began purchasing property along the Kentucky
River that she would later name Floracliff. Her dream for the property
was to preserve the natural communities and special geological features
unique to the area. Dr. Wharton believed that education and appreciation
lead to preservation. She recognized the potential for Floracliff to become
a center for environmental education and research in the natural history
of the Inner Bluegrass and Kentucky River watershed. Her dreams and beliefs
continue to guide Floracliff today.
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