My Ohio: Legacy in Bloom

A serendipitous discovery introduces a wildflower lover to a fellow devotee.

I own a number of wildflower books. But few are as precious to me as Our Early Wild Flowers by naturalist and educator Harriet L. Keeler, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1916. I found the small green volume many years ago at a rummage sale, in a cardboard box sandwiched between dog-eared cookbooks and dated romance novels. It was as delightful as discovering a bed of large-flowered trilliums in Ohio’s spring woodlands.

Keeler was born in 1846 in South Kortright, New York, but came to Ohio for higher education. She graduated from Oberlin College and later received a Doctor of Laws degree from Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Keeler was a teacher and administrator in the Cleveland Public Schools, and in 1912 became the first woman superintendent of the district. The feminist was also president of the Cuyahoga County Suffrage Association.

Keeler’s passions for nature and education were intertwined like enthusiastic vines. She wrote in her book’s introduction: “To the many teachers who are expected to name at sight every blossom brought to them by childish hands.” But Keeler, who never married nor had children, was not without criticism for flower nomenclature. She considered adder’s-tongue an “unpleasantly suggestive” name and much preferred “faun lily” for the wildflower with spotted leaves.

Keeler’s philosophy of life is scattered like seeds riding the wind throughout her 11 books. “The chickweed is an example of that meekness that inherits the earth. It does what it can, it lives where it must,” Keeler wrote. “It produces abundant seed in winter and this proves it capable of self-fertilization.”

Keeler died in 1921, the year the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board set aside 300 acres as the Harriet L. Keeler Memorial Woods. The tract is within the Brecksville Reservation of Cleveland Metroparks and now includes a nature center, prairie, trail and mature forest. I enjoy the same wildflowers Keeler so loved — trout lily, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Virginia bluebells, spring beauties, common blue violets and mayapples.

I have walked the easy path to the Harriet Keeler Memorial many times during the past 40 years. A 6-foot-tall granite boulder with a bronze plaque honors Keeler’s legacy and was dedicated in 1936. Park naturalists assure wide-eyed children on nature hikes that no, Miss Keeler is not buried under the rock.

That boulder, however, was not the first Keeler Memorial. The original, a smaller version with an engraved tribute in the granite, was dedicated in 1923. As early record-keeping was often less than precise, the first memorial “disappeared” for many years. No one knew what happened to it. Until last summer.

According to Sharon Hosko, Brecksville Nature Center manager, a group of large rocks a short distance away from the current memorial was being moved with large equipment. A park employee noticed that when overturned, one boulder was inscribed with well-worn letters: “To Harriet L. Keeler, 1846-1921, Student – Teacher – Author –These Woods and Meadows are Dedicated.” The “lost” memorial is now upright and near the entrance to a trail that winds its way through the woods.

Hosko asks children who view the memorials to name their favorite teacher. She then explains Keeler’s contributions to our understanding of how and where Ohio’s skunk cabbage and Dutchman’s breeches grow. Another park naturalist, John Miller, asks hikers to shout, “Thank you, Harriet!” after he shares Keeler’s story.

I like that idea, but I’m more the solitary type. So this summer, when I visit the Harriet Keeler Memorial Woods, I will honor the woman who explored Ohio woodlands in long skirts in my own way. I will carry my cherished copy of Our Early Wild Flowers and thumb through its pages, mentally checking off the flowers I encounter.

I will again read Keeler’s words: “If a bit of woodland were left absolutely untouched, the leaves never raked from under the trees, since it is that more than anything else which kills the little beauties, there is no reason why they should not grow and flourish even within city precincts.”

And I will whisper, “Thank you, Harriet.”

Jill Sell is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor based in Sagamore Hills.