McGredy, a name for roses

Sam McGredy, one of the world’s greatest rose breeders, died in Auckland last weekend, aged 87. The following is a piece I wrote after meeting Sam and his wife Jillian in Tauranga in November 2012, a meeting facilitated by Sam’s friend Ned Nicely who, at Sam’s invitation, named the My Girl rose.

The name Sam McGredy is synonymous with roses and – 21 years after he retired at the age of 60 – the legendary breeder is still taking an active interest in all things rose.

On a recent visit to Tauranga, he caught up with old friend Ned Nicely, parks co-ordinator at Tauranga City Council, who invited Sam to Robbins Rose Gardens to meet the staff.

Sam McGredy in Robbins Rose Gardens, Tauranga. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“This is a lovely garden and there aren’t so many like this left in New Zealand,” Sam said. “I helped start a big one at the Auckland Botanic Gardens but it was dug out because they refused to spray the plants.

“Everybody’s trying to breed 100 per cent disease-resistant roses, but it’s just about impossible.”

Born in Portadown, Northern Ireland, Sam was only 2 when his father died, leaving him heir to the family rose nursery, established by his great-grandfather, the first Samuel McGredy, in 1880.

The nursery was requisitioned during World War 2 for the growing of vegetables and on his return from the United States at the end of the war, the schoolboy found “half a dozen scungy glasshouses filled with tomatoes and no one who knew anything about roses”.

At its peak under his stewardship, the nursery grew one million plants on 120ha and had 160 staff. From about 60,000 seedlings a year, two or three were chosen for release to the market.

Hamilton Gardens, Sam McGredy’s last commercial rose release. Launched at the Pacific Rosebowl Festival (in Hamilton Gardens) in 2007, the rose is a sport of Sam’s popular Paddy Stephens rose. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“You either have the ability to do it or you don’t,” Sam says of rose breeding. “You have to have the eye to see the improvement possible from a cross and to judge the resulting seedlings.”

After several friends and business associates, both Catholic and Protestant, were murdered during the troubles in Northern Ireland, Sam decided to move to another country, preferably one where he wouldn’t be so reliant on greenhouses.

He and his family – daughters Maria and Katherine, who live in Auckland, and Clodagh, who lives in Tauranga – arrived in New Zealand in 1972.

“I hadn’t done any breeding myself for years, not with a business the size I had, so I didn’t know whether I could still be successful.”

His record speaks for itself. New Zealand-bred McGredy roses include Dublin Bay, Bantry Bay, Sexy Rexy, Paddy Stephens, My Girl and Aotearoa (sold as New Zealand overseas).

A fence of Dublin Bay roses. Sam McGredy reckoned this was the best rose he bred in New Zealand ‘and it will still be around long after me’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The winner of numerous awards from the rose world – he won his first Gold Medal from the World Federation of Rose Societies in 1959 – Sam also has an honorary doctorate from Massey University and a CBE, and takes great pleasure in the McGredy Rose Garden, a collection being developed in Hastings by Georgina Campbell.

“No one else has bothered to do it,” he says. “A lot of the roses have been lost, but every year she finds three or four more, although it’s a bit of a job to get them into the country. It’s a grand thing.”

Sam. who helped establish Plant Variety Rights in New Zealand, regularly complimented Te Puna rose breeder Rob Somerfield and at our meeting in 2012 described Rob as “the pride of New Zealand”.

After this piece appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times, Sam emailed me: All my life every newspaper story was full of errors facts and spelling. Yours was 100% correct in every detail. I loved it … Many, many thanks for your expert, professional journalism. Sláinte, Sam

No, thank you, Sam. Your life’s work has brought and will bring pleasure to so many. RIP.

2 thoughts on “McGredy, a name for roses

  1. Lovely story, my grandfather was from Northern Ireland and I can imagine him with roses. All your photos of the roses look lovely and the Dublin Bay rose is particularly striking, it looks like some of the roses in the Parliamentary Rose Gardens in Canberra. I enjoyed the story of Sam McGredy’s life.

    • Thank you. My father took up rose showing as a hobby in his 40s and the McGredy name was well-known, and admired, in the household. It was a great pleasure, then, to meet the great man.

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