The Honorable Lillian Ransom has been a judge for almost 30 years, but she’s been a gardener much longer than that. Her agrarian childhood was the original seed that grew into a passion for plants. She is a board member at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and a member and former president of Our Garden Club of Philadelphia and Vicinity, the longest continually operating African-American garden club in the country. We spoke with Ransom about building community, sharing knowledge, and bringing history into the light.
How did you first fall in love with plants and gardening?
I grew up on a farm in Virginia. We raised almost all of the food that we ate, so gardening initially for me was not what you would call a fun venture. It was: if you want to eat, you have to work on the farm. It was an excellent life and an excellent start for my interest in gardening.
My grandmother lived in a city and she was very interested in gardening. It was my time with her that really got me interested in growing shrubs and flowers for fun, for the beauty of it, because they made the air smell better, or attracted pollinator insects.
Did you maintain this passion from childhood on?
I would say that I always had an interest. I’ve always loved receiving cut flowers or spending time in flower shops or visiting gardens. Philadelphia is a great place because there are so many public gardens here. It’s a great place to experience the growth and the beauty that happens during the change of seasons — from winter to spring when the flowers first start to pop through the ground, and into summer when they’re in full bloom, and then as the leaves change in the fall.
When did you join your first garden club?
I joined Our Garden Club of Philadelphia and Vicinity in 2003. I had some friends who were already members and they thought that I might find it to be an interesting place to be.
I’ve always appreciated beauty visually, but to be able to create something that was beautiful has been a growth opportunity for me. Our Garden Club of Philadelphia and Vicinity has a flower show every two years. All of the garden club members are expected to contribute arrangements. As I practiced for my first flower show, I said, “Okay, I think I have created something that is really fabulous.” I called some of the more seasoned members and asked if they would come over and look at my first draft of this arrangement. Well, they came in. They looked at each other. Then they looked at me. Then they fell out laughing and pulled the whole thing apart. They said, “Honey, no, come sit over here — you need a few more lessons.” I was crushed. But they were very kind in explaining to me things that I had not appreciated about line and form and balance and color blending. So I learned a lot from that experience.
I’ve also exhibited in the Philadelphia Flower Show a number of times and have won ribbons there. Usually I’ve exhibited in partnership with other members of my garden club.
Talking to gardeners for Bulb & Bloom, they are some of the most giving people. There is no knowledge hoarding — it is all about sharing, educating, and collaborating. I wonder if it comes from that original idea of sharing seeds and passing things along. The only way plants can propagate is to be shared.
You’re absolutely right. Our Garden Club of Philadelphia and Vicinity was founded in 1939 because there were women of color who loved flowers and were really excellent at growing and arranging, but they were excluded from the white flower clubs. So they just formed their own flower club.
We believe that we are the longest continually operating African-American garden club in the country. We started in 1939 and just have an extraordinary history. We present our own flower show every two years. Members have exhibited in the Philadelphia Flower Show since 1974. We’ve decorated houses in Fairmount Park during the holiday season. Every year we have one weekend when we present floral arrangements at the Ronald McDonald House. It’s by invitation and we’ve been doing it for 15 or more years. They tell us what they need: centerpieces for the tables, arrangements for the greeting area or for the board room.
And we’ve been involved with Habitat for Humanity. They will build a house and need some landscaping. So we don’t do landscaping exactly, but we do plantings that are generally perennial bulbs and other things that will come back year to year to help brighten the new home that the family is moving into.
It’s a nice way to bring sunshine to people.
It is. Our group has never been very large — I can’t think that we’ve ever had more than 30 members, but they are all people who are very giving and loving people. It’s a good sense of camaraderie.
It’s interesting thinking about the idea of an African-American gardening club because the relationship between African Americans and agriculture and growing things in this country is a long, complicated and fraught one. These Black gardeners were not allowed into these garden clubs where Black people were probably doing a lot of the gardening.
Most of the gardening. All of the gardening. This is a part of history that is just being recognized. Generally the public guests — which did not include people of color — would come and say, “This garden and your interior floral arrangements are gorgeous. Madam of the house, you’ve done a splendid job!” Madam would say, “Oh, thank you so much,” but would generally not acknowledge the fact that she didn’t raise a hoe, didn’t raise a rake, didn’t do a thing except say, “You go and collect some flowers because I’m having guests and I want everything to look beautiful.”
One last question: Can you tell me about your garden? What are you excited about right now?
What I have learned to do is container gardening. I like plants that are pollinators — they attract butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds. I have also learned to grow some vegetables in containers.
Lee Stabert is a writer and podcaster with an expertise on all things Pennsylvania. For over a decade, she has served as chief editor of Keystone Edge, an online magazine about what’s next and best in PA, while also creating content about local wine, gardening, culture, and community development. In addition, she knows where to find the best tacos in Philly. Just ask.