Helen M.R. Burton (born Kannemeyer) was the daughter of Daniel R. Kannemeyer*, medical practitioner and palaeontologist, and his wife Helen Marie Hill. She was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in King William's Town and by private tuition, and passed the matriculation examination of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1896. In November the next year she married Henry Burton (1866-1935), advocate and later minister of railways and harbours in the first cabinet of the Union of South Africa. They had six sons and three daughters.
Helen Burton was interested in gardening, music, farming (with pigs, bees and poultry), and the work of local charitable institutions. She became a patron of the arts and science and a patron of the publication Women of South Africa (1913). She collected plants with Dr C.F.L. Leipoldt* and Dr P. Le Fras Nortier*. Some of her plant specimens went to the Albany Museum in Grahamstown and in 1941 she presented plants to the British Natural History Museum in London. The species Oxalis burtoniae was named after her.
Burton was a foundation member of the Botanical Society of South Africa in 1913 and a member of the deputation that negotiated for the establishment of the National Botanic Garden at Kirstenbosch. The first volume of The flowering plants of South Africa (1921) was dedicated to her in recognition of her role in establishing the series and of her services to South African botany and horticulture.