Visiting the adjoining winter estates of Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers, Fla., it is obvious the impact Thomas Edison left on his property. In his quest for a new source of rubber, plants of every type and from every continent, save Antarctica, found new homes here. In addition to Edison, three women left their mark on the property.
In 1885, shortly after he married his second wife, Mina Miller, Edison bought property in what was little more than a pasture. He had visited Florida and fell in love with the warm weather and tropical plants. It was perfect place to continue his research and to get away from New Jersey winters.
While Edison’s plants were utilitarian, his wife Mina’s plants were primarily ornamental. Orchids were one of Mina’s favorite plants. She had gardeners plant orchids, which thrived in the Florida climate, in the nooks and crannies of trees. Like the caretakers for the museum today, the garners would tie the plants to the trees with string (today, zip ties), and eventually the roots of the plant would wrap themselves around the tree. So many orchids clung to the trees along the front of the house, it came to be called Orchid Row.
Mina loved all sorts of flowering plants. One purple bush between the house and the guest house called the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow plant. My tour guide claimed it was her favorite plant. And as you walk across the street from the visitors center to begin your tour, you can’t miss the huge purple flowering bush in the center of the walk way. It was the last plant Mina added to the gardens before she sold the house and land for the princely sum of $1 to the city of Fort Myers.
Mina was not the only woman to make her mark on the estate’s landscape. When Henry Ford took Mr. Edison’s lab back to Dearborn, Michigan, in 1928, Mina hired Ellen Biddle Shipman, America’s first woman landscape architect, to turn the newly cleared area into a moon garden, a popular trend in the 1920s. The idea was a garden that could be enjoyed in the evening. Most of the flowers are white, and in the center is a pond for water lilies and to reflect the rising moon. Surrounding the garden are the plants that had growing on the building. They were given a new support structure and left to create an outdoor room.
Even though the Edison and Ford families spent only a limited time spent on the estate every winter, the women left their mark on the landscape. Where Mrs. Edison loved orchids, her next door neighbor Clara Bryant Ford loved roses, and planted roses in front of her home, near where they can still be found today.
ⓒ Essay and photo by Gina Truitt