Rachel Mellon, known since childhood as “Bunny,” founder and collector of the Oak Spring Garden Library in Uppervale, VA, passed away on March 17, 2014, at the age of 103. Though never formally trained in botany or horticulture, Mellon’s passion for plants led her to read widely on the subject and apply her well-known, innate good taste to landscaping, gardening, and horticulture. Her landscaping credits include the White House’s Rose Garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden as well as her own Oak Spring estate, a 4,000-acre property in northern Virginia.1
Bunny Mellon was born on August 9, 1910, in Princeton, NJ. A society heiress, her grandfather was Jordan W. Lambert, inventor of Listerine® and founder of Lambert Pharmacal Company. Her father, Gerard Lambert, inherited the company and kept it afloat during the Great Depression; later, the company was sold to Pfizer under the name Warner-Lambert.2 She was educated at Miss Fine’s School (now Princeton Day School) in Princeton and Foxcroft School in Middleburg, VA. She married her first husband, Stacy Barcroft Lloyd Jr., in 1932. The couple had two children, son Stacy and daughter Eliza (who died in 2008), before divorcing in 1948. Later that year she married her second husband, Paul Mellon, son of Pittsburgh financier Andrew W. Mellon, who died in 1999. Preferring as much privacy as possible, Mellon stayed out of public life and devoted her time to her garden and library.1
Mellon’s social connections introduced her to Jacqueline Kennedy in the late 1950s. Their friendship grew out of Mrs. Kennedy’s admiration for Mellon’s taste in horticulture and interior design, and, in 1961, Mellon redesigned the White House Rose Garden after President Kennedy’s inauguration.1,3 The Kennedys then asked her to design the White House East Garden, but she did not complete it before President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Lady Bird Johnson asked her to finish the work, and the garden was dedicated — at Mellon’s insistence — as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden in 1965.1 The Rose Garden has since been used for official White House functions such as galas and press conferences as well as more private events like the marriage of President Nixon’s daughter Tricia.4
An avid art collector, Mellon maintained a scholarly interest in gardening by amassing rare manuscripts and books. In the foreword to An Oak Spring Flora, the third volume in her Garden Library series, Mellon recalls a book of wildflowers given to her by her grandfather at age 11 and credits it with inciting her interest in gardening.5 The first volume in the series, An Oak Spring Sylva, is dedicated to her grandfather, “[who] encouraged this enthusiasm [for plants], leading me through woods and up mountains, and taking me on trips to Concord, Massachusetts, to learn and study the world of Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne. These memories are a small part of the beginning of the Oak Spring Garden Library.”6
An Oak Spring Herbaria, the fourth volume, received the American Botanical Council’s 2009 James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award and was reviewed in HerbalGram issue 88 by Steven Foster, who called it “an authoritative survey of herbals, their authors, and history, as represented in selections from the collection of the Oak Spring Library, dating to the 14th century.”7
The library was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes in 1980 with input from Mellon. It is comprised of “rare books, manuscripts, works of art and artifacts relating to gardening, landscape design, horticulture, botany, natural history and travels…[t]he collection is a unique historical archive as well as a day-to-day working resource.”8
Susan Leopold, PhD, currently the director of United Plant Savers, worked at the library for ten years, digitizing the card catalog and photographing some of the older manuscripts, books, and art from Mellon’s collection to make them available online. “The significance of the collection is multidimensional,” she wrote (e-mail to T. Smith, March 21, 2014). “The collection [has] certainly the most prized and rarest books in regards to botanical literature and botanical artwork.… Scholars are looking back over these works and rediscovering the ethnobotanical knowledge, herbal medicine, [and] species information that is significant to historical interpretation.”
As detailed in An Oak Spring Herbaria, the library’s collection on herbs and herbal medicines spans a vast range of time periods and subject matters, from a 1350s nature encyclopedia to 19th century texts on American medical botany. The collection also includes a copy of Carl Linnaeus’s Hortus Cliffortianus, which has been called “one of the most fundamental contributions to the botanical literature of all time.”9 Mellon oversaw the layout and content of all of the books in the Garden Library series, and Dr. Leopold is mentioned in the acknowledgements for her assistance in the creation of An Oak Spring Herbaria.
“I did have the pleasure of interacting with Mrs. Mellon,” wrote Dr. Leopold. “To be around her and observe her sense of placement in working with materials and objects was fascinating. Her eye for art and how to celebrate the artist by creating the perfect arrangements was an art form in [itself].”
Friends and family celebrated the life of Bunny Mellon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Uppervale, VA. The service included flower arrangements from her garden, a performance by close friend Bette Midler, and an appearance by Senator John Edwards, whose 2008 presidential campaign somewhat infamously benefitted from Mellon’s contributions.10 She is survived by her son Stacy, her stepchildren Timothy Mellon and Catherine Conover, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.3
- McFadden R. Rachel Mellon, an heiress known for her green thumb, dies at 103. New York Times. March 17, 2014. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/us/rachel-mellon-heiress-known-for-garden-designs-is-dead-at-103.html?_r=0. Accessed April 7, 2014.
- Reginato J. Bunny Mellon’s secret garden. Vanity Fair. August 2010. Available at: www.vanityfair.com/style/features/2010/08/bunny-mellon-garden-201008. Accessed April 7, 2014.
- Higgins A. Rachel ‘Bunny’ Mellon, arts patron and confidante of Jackie Kennedy, dies at 103. Washington Post. March 17, 2014. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/national/rachel-bunny-mellon-arts-patron-and-confidante-of-jackie-kennedy-dies-at-103/2014/03/17/383ac6da-c5db-11df-94e1-c5afa35a9e59_story.html. Accessed April 7, 2014.
- The White House Museum. The rose garden. Available at: www.whitehousemuseum.org/grounds/rose-garden.htm. Accessed April 7, 2014.
- Tomasi L. An Oak Spring Flora. Uppervale, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library; 1997.
- Tomasi L. An Oak Spring Sylva. Uppervale, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library; 1989.
- Foster S. An Oak Spring Herbaria: Herbs and Herbals from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries: A Selection of the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Works of Art in the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon. HerbalGram. 2010;88:62-65.
- Oak Spring Garden Library. Main page. Available at: www.oakspring.org/index.htm. Accessed April 7, 2014.
- Tomasi L and Willis T. An Oak Spring Herbaria. Uppervale, VA: Oak Spring Garden Library; 2009.
- Roberts R. At Bunny Mellon’s funeral, music from Bette Midler and a John Edwards appearance. Washington Post. March 28, 2014. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/at-bunny-mellons-funeral-music-from-bette-midler-and-a-john-edwards-appearance/2014/03/28/c9a79d2e-b6b3-11e3-a7c6-70cf2db17781_story.html. Accessed April 7, 2014.