Daylily ‘Stephanie Returns’
Photo by David J. Stang

Once there was a girl from Camden, N.J. Although short in stature, she became one of the most influential women in horticulture, and her name is Stephanie Cohen.

Stephanie, like so many others, got caught up in the 1960s houseplants craze. According to her husband, Dr. Richard Cohen, Stephanie collected a lot of houseplants – more than 300 of them. When visiting, you had to be careful before sitting down to make sure you didn’t sit on a plant. Stephanie also blew out a couple of televisions while watering the plants stored on top of them.

That love of houseplants led her to learn more about horticulture. She already had an undergraduate degree in English and was a high school teacher. Stephanie kept on her educational journey by obtaining a master’s degree in environmental studies at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. She was a teacher that was always looking to do more.

With her enthusiasm about plants, her husband suggested she go back to school to learn more about her hobby. She acquired a degree in horticulture from Temple University Ambler in Pennsylvania. Even with three small children at home, she began taking full-time classes, worked in the Temple greenhouse, and edited Houseplants and Porch Gardens magazine. Just as she graduated, one of the professors at Temple gave notice she wouldn’t be returning in the fall. Because Stephanie had been such a good student, the university offered her the job temporarily for the next semester. She stayed for 21 years.

Her time at Temple University Ambler wasn’t solely spent teaching. She designed the Temple Gardens and is the founding director of the Ambler Arboretum. Stephanie also designed the four-year horticulture program at Temple Ambler. Her former Temple students that are involved in horticulture can be numbered by the hundreds, including PhDs, public garden directors, greenhouse and garden center owners, horticulture teachers, heads of arboretums and more.

Stephanie Cohen, aka The Perennial Diva.
Photo by Rob Cardillo,

Stephanie branches out

After leaving Temple, she had a number of jobs such as hybridizing orchids for John DuPont (the same John DuPont that killed the Olympic coach), then spent 21 years at Waterloo Gardens, first in retail, then editing their newsletter, running their speakers program and managing the company’s marketing.

Stephanie, also known as Dr. Root (a play on Dr. Ruth of radio fame) or the Perennial Diva, has appeared on local cable TV, as well as PBS. She even did a stint on QVC 15 years ago selling thousands of dollars of perennials for Cottage Gardens. A garden lecturer and writer, she is a contributor to many trade and consumer magazines, and is a best-selling author. Her titles include The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer, Fallscaping, and The Nonstop Garden. One of her books is in its second printing — in Russian.

She is also the winner of countless awards from plant societies and arboretums. She was recognized by the Perennial Plant Association (PPA) as Educator of the Year in 2003. The PPA also presented her with the Honor Award for Design and the Special Service Award. She received the Garden Communicator of the Year Award by the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

There are even plants named after her such as the daylily ‘Stephanie Returns,’ Tiarella cordifolia ‘Stephanie Cohen’ and Phlox paniculata ‘Shortwood’ (named after her own garden).

When asked to plant a meadow at her home, after some consideration she decided it should be done with plugs rather than seed. It became an experiment for the industry that showed plugs in meadows are successful and easier to create.

A giving heart

It’s not the accolades, money, respect or even getting new plants that make Stephanie really tick, it’s mentoring. She loves giving back, especially to an industry that has given her so much. She has a tendency to want to help people, giving them a “gentle, firm push off a cliff,” she says. When she was teaching high school, she had a couple of students that other teachers had given up on, so she took them under her wing only to have to them succeed and graduate. Her doctor’s x-ray tech confessed to her that his real love was gardening. She told him to go for it. For those that are unsure of themselves her advice is, “You’re just as good as they are, so just do it!”

For anyone who asks for help, she is more than willing to oblige. And for these reasons and more, she supports the Camden Children’s Garden in Camden, N.J.

A young man in her area was involved in the Camden Children’s Garden and was friends with landscape designer Sharee Solow, who is also a friend of Stephanie’s. He introduced Stephanie to the garden, and she decided to put in a bench in honor of her grandkids. But she felt she needed to do more. When people tour her garden, she asks for a small donation and it all goes to the Children’s Garden. For her last milestone birthday, “no presents” was requested, but a donation to the garden was happily accepted.

No stopping Stephanie

Left: Phlox paniculata 'Shortwood' Right: Tiarella 'Stephanie Cohen'
Photos courtesy of Walters Gardens and Plants Nouveau

Stephanie is energized by “new plants, friends, new friends and of course, ice cream,” she says.

January gets her excited with all the new catalogs pouring in since she suffers from OGD, Obsessive Gardening Disease. Her favorite plant is “the last one I bought,” she says. Her least favorite plants are the ones that are aggressive in the garden. She is much like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland — if a plant doesn’t perform, it’s off with their heads.

She doesn’t have any plans for retirement until people quit asking her to speak. But she has another goal — to have more plants named after her than Gertrude Jekyll, a prolific British horticulturist. Stephanie hasn’t passed her, yet.

Just like we get excited when we meet a guru of our horticulture world, Stephanie is no different. She had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lloyd, a British gardener and garden writer, and they talked all about his garden, the Great Dixter. Stephanie also fondly remembers meeting Beth Chatto, another famous Brit, at her nursery and talking plants.

Stephanie is hopeful for the future of horticulture. “Numbers are finally getting higher, how much interest there is in organics, in farm to table, so carve out a niche for yourself. There will always be a use for horticulture. Everything evolves.”

Denise is a professional horticulturist and garden writer based in Pittsburgh.