Monday, February 4, 2013

Searching for Helen Van Pelt Wilson

I grew up the daughter of a woman who gardened and who always had houseplants in her home. My Grandfather Coombs, too, had a wonderful vegetable garden into his eighties.  At ninety, Grandmother Holmes was still carefully tending her African violets. She always had something in bloom on her window sill.  Both of my older sisters always have an ample supply of houseplants around  and have kept their yards full of flowers.
So it seems natural that I, too, have been happiest when grubbing about in damp soil. In winter, like my Grandmother Holmes, I like coaxing things into bloom near a bright window. And it was in pursuit of inspiration for more indoor blooms that I picked up  my 1973 copy of Houseplants Are For Pleasure by Helen Van Pelt Wilson.


I have read this book a couple of times before and have always enjoyed it, along with a half dozen other titles by this author. For me, reading Helen Van Pelt Wilson is like getting a good letter from an old friend who shares my interests. I like how she peppers her advice with occasional cautionary anecdotes. For example, in the Houseplants book she wrote:
Incidentally, one very early morning when I didn't [turn the lights on] quite early enough and was measuring both instant coffee and liquid fertilizer, there was a near disaster, for I almost drank the wrong thing. I am more careful now...
 There is some advice in these books that I do not, could not, now follow. To keep her plants bug-free indoors, Wilson liked to make ample use of Shell No-Pest-Strips, a product that was taken off the market in the late 1970s. It seems the strips emitted neurotoxins or something like that, which were found to be a tad unhealthy for people as well as for bugs. Of course, Helen Van Pelt Wilson lived to be very nearly 102, so she seems to have survived her exposure. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

After finishing my re-read of the Houseplants book, I got to wondering about this prolific writer and did a Google search to find out more about her. To my surprise, very little about Wilson turned up on my search. The books were there, of course, listed for sale as used books on a number of sites. But I could find no biography, no fan page, no obituary, not even a Wikipedia entry. How could this be?  There were a few blog postings and queries from folks like me, looking for more information about Helen Van Pelt Wilson. But this nice lady who wrote so many good books seemed to have faded away without much notice from the garden world.
I wondered, was Wilson just her pen name and an obituary might have appeared under a married name? Had there been some sort of scandal? Or had she died alone and friendless with no one left to write about her life? Enquiring minds wanted to know. (And when one is retired, going off on tangents like this is one of the many small pleasures of quiet winter days with some time to spare.)
Since the Internet had not been much help, I contacted Miss Wilson's alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, and asked if their alumni association had an obituary. (God bless alumni associations. They can find anyone. How do they do it? )  A few days later, a hard copy of Helen Van Pelt Wilson's 2003 obituary arrived in the mail. So now I knew much of what I'd wanted to know.
To give this good lady her due,  I decided to help fill the Internet information void. At the very least, Helen Van Pelt Wilson, author, co-author, compiler and editor of dozens of gardening books, deserved to have a Wikipedia page. And as of today, she does.
Miss Wilson, here's to you. I did the best I could. Thank you for your excellent advice over the years and may you rest in peace.
Please click here to access the Wikipedia page for Helen Van Pelt Wilson. And if you happen to have information to add to it, please do.