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 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.
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.