Great interview on Kim Hill’s programme today about the Jean Stevens garden in Whanganui and the attempts to save the property that was owned by one of New Zealand’s greatest iris breeders. Listen to it here.
Jean Burgess was from a plant nursery family and in 1921 her father imported tall bearded irises, 2 years later making Jean responsible for their propagation and sale, thus beginning her life-long love affair. In 1928 she sent selections of some of her own crosses overseas for assessment with ‘Destiny’ being her first cultivar to win plaudits outside New Zealand – it was released in Britain and in 1934 became the first Southern Hemisphere-bred iris to receive the British Iris Society’s bronze medal.
Jean and Wally Stevens met at a flower show in 1935, marrying a year later. Wally and his brother Frank had established Stevens Brothers Nursery in Bulls, a business which operated until relatively recently. Wally moved the nursery to Bastia Hill in Whanganui in the 1940s, seeking a better climate and soil for what he wanted to grow and sell.
Three of Jean’s irises received awards of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in Britain between 1936 and 1939. Another, ‘Inspiration’, attracted the attention of noted American iris hybridiser Robert Schreiner, who introduced a selection of her cultivars to the American market.
She worked to expand the colour range in the amoena group of tall bearded irises – those with white standards and violet, violet-blue or purple falls – and achieved international recognition with ‘Pinnacle’, an outstanding white and yellow amoena (arguably a world first). This iris received an award of merit from both the American Iris Society (1951) and the Royal Horticultural Society (1959).
In 1948 Jean was a foundation member of the Australian Iris Society and in 1949 the New Zealand Iris Society, becoming president (1949–51, 1956–57), its Bulletin editor for 10 years, and registrar of New Zealand cultivars from 1957 until her death in 1967. In 1952 her handbook The iris and its culture was published in Australia. She registered some 391 iris hybrids in her lifetime
The British Iris Society awarded Jean the prestigious Foster Memorial Plaque in 1953, but the honour she valued most was the American Iris Society’s hybridisers’ medal for 1955.
Read more at the very informative entry for Jean Stevens in the Dictionary of NZ Biography. And go here to read a more iris-focused article. The NZ Iris Society features a Jean Stevens drop-down menu.
The Stevens Brothers Nursery was carried on by Jean and Wally’s daughter and son-in-law, Jocelyn and Ian Bell, until recently. Ian, who was an accountant before he became a horticultural apprentice to Wally and Jean in about 1961, has to his credit the phenomenally successful Leucaodendron ‘Safari Sunset’, which annually sells in excess of 40 million stems on the international cut flower market. Ian won a RNZIH Plant Raiser’s Award in 1982 for Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’ and Leucadendron ‘Bell’s Sunrise’, while the same year Jean won a posthumous award for Leucadendron ‘Red Gem’.
In 2021, researchers from Te Papa Museum went to the garden to collect specimens, as many of the plants are rarely cultivated in New Zealand and not represented in the national museum’s botany collection. Read more here.
Jocelyn died in 2017 and Ian last year. Read an obituary for him here (behind a paywall, unfortunately). Back the Blooms on Bastia is desperately trying to raise the money for the deposit to buy the garden from the Bell heirs and have set up a website for donations.