Maria Luisa Pasqualina Bertasso was born into a large family in Italy, in 1893. As a teenager, she and her family moved to South Africa, where her father became the foreman of a gold mining company. When the family returned to Italy a few years later, the mine superintendent adopted Maria so she could remain in South Africa. She loved music and took up singing; but after damaging her voice, she was forced to end her singing career. So, she enrolled in an agricultural college where her training in horticulture began. She and four other women would be the first students of the "Women’s Agricultural College of South Africa" - Maria would then go on to study horticulture in England, Italy and the United States.
In 1915 at the age of 23, Maria returned to Italy and joined the Red Cross, working in a hospital. She was in charge of food service and by the end of World War I she had become an important administrator at the hospital. After the war, she left for the United States to continue her education, but this time in medicine, hoping to establish a women’s hospital to be staffed and administered by women. Her supervisors in Italy had been so impressed with her abilities that she had plenty of sponsors eager to back her. She arrived in San Francisco in 1919.
Soon, Ms. Bertasso met and married Tom Wilkes, even though friends warned her against him. Tom Wilkes had been divorced three times and was known as a womanizer. Whatever his past relationships may have been, their marriage progressed well, and she worked together with her husband in his successful business ventures. Sadly, their family fortunes were all lost during the Great Depression and Tom Wilkes died in 1935, leaving his wife Maria penniless and in debt.
Together with her son, a sister and an orphaned granddaughter from one of Tom Wilkes’ earlier marriages, Mrs. Wilkes moved into a smaller home. She obtained employment with the "California State Relief Agency" and later moved on to work for the federal "Works Progress Administration" (WPA). Her skills were rewarded at the WPA where she quickly rose to an executive position. With her finances in order, she left the WPA to return to work she loved: Horticulture.
Maria Wilkes was employed by several plant nurseries and eventually became self-employed as an independent consulting horticulturist, specializing in rejuvenating gardens. She lectured on many facets of horticulture and became an avid promoter for healthy food and organic gardening, warning against the excessive use of insecticides and food additives. She was an ecologist long before the term was coined.
Mrs. Wilkes belonged to a number of associations, clubs and societies and served as an officer in several of them. She often received recognition and awards; in 1971, LAGC placed her name on the roll of honor at the National Council of State Garden Clubs, and on April 29, 1976, CGCI awarded her special recognition as "Woman of the Year" for which she was sponsored by the LAGC. She was listed in the second edition of "Who’s Who of American Women". Maria Wilkes remained an active and productive member of the LAGC until her death in 1977.
Her original design still graces the front cover page of the LAGC annual Yearbook and more recently, our website's homepage.