Beloved Morris Arboretum horticulturist succumbs to MS


Iana M. Turner, a horticulturist who was virtually synonymous with Morris Arboretum, passed away peacefully from multiple sclerosis on July 18, surrounded by family members. She was 75. 

Iana lived in the carriage house on the grounds of Morris Arboretum for years, moving to Erdenheim when her illness forced her to retire in 2015.

“She always had a love of the outdoors, birds and plants, when growing up in the country in Western Pennsylvania,” said her brother, Andrew, last week. “As a child and teenager, she thought of being a teacher or librarian but ultimately wanted to have something to do with nature.”

Born Iana Mitchell Walker in 1948, Iana served as a docent as a teenager at Old Economy, an early 19th-century German village in Ambridge, PA, and was chosen to attend the last international Girl Scout Roundup in 1965.

“She was a great mom, despite us struggling financially,” said Iana's son, Jason. “She taught me the value of hard work, being kind to people and never settling for less than your best. She made me go to schools (Masterman and Engineering and Science High School) that would push me, knowing that they would set me up for success in the future.”

Iana was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at age 63, 12 years ago. According to family members, it was originally misdiagnosed in 2009 as plantar fasciitis as it started in her left foot and progressed upwards through the left side of her body. She tried experimental treatments at first and was able to get around on her own up until 18 months ago.

“At her first doctor's appointment after being diagnosed with MS, the doctor said based on how advanced she was, she would probably lose mobility in two to five years,” said Andrew. “But she kept her mobility for over 10 years.”

The arboretum provided Iana with a golf cart and other support, which made it possible for her to continue gardening, landscaping and running the Morris Arboretum garden railway from 2009 until 2015, when the MS progressed to the point that she had to retire. She continued to stay active with the garden railway, however, and stayed in touch with many of the staff, interns and volunteers with whom she had worked.  

A graduate of Temple University, Iana joined Morris Arboretum in 1990, becoming a section chief in 1994. She oversaw the creation and operation of Morris’ popular Garden Railway and assisted in creating similar railways at the New York Botanical Gardens and U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. For many years she served as the Morris Arboretum’s go-to authority on the care of shrubs and trees, teaching many classes for adults and children.

She was much loved by the many arboretum volunteers whom she supervised and was profiled by this newspaper in 2015, when she retired. As one docent said at the time, “Iana was always the mother hen to interns and volunteers. She watched over us, fed us and watered us, just like she did with her plants.”

When asked what she would most want people to know about Iana, her sister Marjory, who was 18 years younger than Iana, said, “She had a loving and genuine concern for everyone who came into her life, treating them all as family. She was tirelessly compassionate and always putting others before herself. She also had a great sense of humor. She was loved dearly by her close friends in the Chestnut Hill area and colleagues at the arboretum … She was genuinely loving and compassionate.”

According to Jason, “She cared and loved people. Even at the end, when she was fading, she was still asking her caregivers about their lives. Always giving an ear when it was all she had to give … She also loved music and went to Woodstock and Fillmore East. Folk music was her extreme passion; she volunteered annually at the Philadelphia Folk Festival for more than 20 years.”

Before joining Morris Arboretum, Iana had her own fruit and produce business, long before the farm-to-table movement. She, her partner and son had a corner produce stand in a couple of spots over the years, the last one at the corner of Umbria Street and Parker Avenue in Manayunk. In her later years, she developed a strong passion for genealogy, tracing one branch of the family back to the 16th century in France.

The name Iana is most unusual. According to Jason, her parents thought they were going to have a boy, and they were going to name him Ian. When the baby turned out to be a girl, they just added an “a.”

Iana is survived by her son, Jason Edward Turner, and his wife, Leigha Main Turner, and sister Marjory M. Walker, brother Andrew Walker, niece McKayla Mitchell and nephew Colin Walker. A memorial service for Iana will held on Saturday, Aug. 26, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Morris Arboretum. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made to Morris Arboretum in her memory.

Len Lear can be reached at