There was a particular path Lillian McPherson preferred to walk while attending the University of Georgia in Athens. It would take her to the home of America's first garden club. “It was a little brick house and I was so attracted to the whole thing,” she said.
She's been drawn to flowers and gardens her entire life, and has dedicated countless hours to beautification projects in Avon Lake, where she's lived since 1958, and Lorain County. Her contributions were recognized June 3 by Avon-on-the-Lake Garden Club, whose membership honored her with a Perennial Bloom Award. The award is given to longtime members who have served in leadership positions and led club special projects.
While McPherson was a young child growing up in Atlanta, the garden was a place to play. “Everybody I knew used to play in the garden when they were little.” She enjoyed making small 3D dioramas in tree roots. During World War II, she helped in the family's Victory Garden and took over mowing the lawn when her father, an IRS agent, had to travel to Washington, D.C., and her brother joined the military. She also raised chickens and rabbits. “It was like a mini farm right in the middle of the city,” she recalled, adding that the large, terraced yard sloped down to a stream.
When she went to college, she studied languages, English and journalism. But those frequent trips to the garden club property made her eventually question why she had not pursued botany. Following college, she married and, as the first of her four children arrived, she began to accumulate houseplants.
Her husband, Roland, a Pittsburgh native, was offered a job at BFGoodrich in the mid-1950s. After a short time in Cuyahoga Falls, they moved to the Avon Lake home where she still lives.
She became involved in the community, even though she was raising four children, including a set of twins.
McPherson was a founding member of the League of Women Voters in Avon Lake. She served as president of Friends of the Library, volunteered with the city's Tree Commission, served on the citizen advisory council for the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and Lorain County Beautiful and pursued her desire to develop a community garden, all while tending her outdoor garden and indoor plants.
The city-provided site for the community garden was next to land commonly referred to in Avon Lake as “the coal pile,” situated near Walker Road where rail cars deposit mounds of coal used at the power plant. She said they dug up broken toilets and a roll of cable, along with other building materials, laughing when she said she didn't know back then that someone could ask the city for money or help with community projects. McPherson said they were able to grow things once the site was amended. It no longer exists.
Amid her extensive volunteer work, she joined the Avon-on-the-Lake Garden Club in 1993. During 27 years, she has held dozens of leadership positions, including president in 1999. In 2014, she urged club members to become involved with a project to save Monarch butterflies. For the past five years, McPherson, who turned 90 in April, has served as chair or co-chair of Monarch Butterfly and Way Station and Bumble Bee Garden on the grounds at Avon Lake Public Library.
She also maintains a vegetable garden at the Avon Lake Community Garden, helped by her brother, with whom she has shared her home the past two years. They grow tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, okra and tomatillos, she said.
McPherson did not hesitate when asked about her favorite flower. It's a pink carnation. “Well, a dianthus of any kind of pink. They're very commonplace, but they are perfect in every way.” She says her deeply shaded yard with clay soil is not hospitable to her beloved dianthus.
In her yard, she points to Stewartia. “They're a collector's item and very good to have.” She said Cleveland Botanical Garden sends an announcement every year to let gardeners know when its Stewartia is about to bloom. “Mine are right here.” She described it as an American native plant that looks like a fried egg when it's open, with five white petals and a big yellow center.
Pamela Hoffman, past club president, who presented the award to McPherson, recalled the many times McPherson brought an unusual plant to a club meeting, deftly describing its attributes and care instructions. The award was a surprise to McPherson.
As part of the honor, she will select an item to be planted in one of the nine civic gardens tended by members.
Contact reporter Michele Murphy at Avonlakemurphy@gmail.com.