In 1934 25-year-old New Zealander John Ewart went to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in England to train and 3 years later was posted with the Colonial Agricultural Service to Singapore, a place that became the focus of his working life for many years – and where he became involved with orchids.
It’s a bit of a story, especially with the outbreak of World War 2, so get comfy.
John started as the renowned Singapore Botanic Gardens as assistant curator but after only 12 months was assigned to the Straits Settlement Botanic Gardens in Penang (Malaysia) for a year, before returning to Singapore. Fortunately, he was on leave in New Zealand when Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, and was posted to Ghana with the task of increasing cocoa production there. Two years later he joined the British Army and served in India before returning to Malaya at the end of the war.
The Gardens had been pitted with shell craters and trenches during the fall of Singapore but fighting had spared the priceless Herbarium (where specimens are stored for scientific research). Despite the well-documented terrible conditions in Singapore during the Japanese occupation, the invading force did look after the Gardens, mostly thanks to the quick-thinking Professor Hidezo Tanakadate of Tohoku University, a volcanologist, who immediately assumed control of the Gardens and evicted the military. Prof. Tanakadate, one of whose fellow officers was related to the Emperor, retained the British directors to administer and assist in repairs. Other staff members were not as fortunate, sent to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, where many lost their lives.
After nearly a month’s reparation work on houses and grounds after the invasion, “the Gardens regained its calm centre of research activity”.
Botany professor Kwan Koriba, from the Imperial University of Kyoto, took over as director in December 1942, immersing himself in research on the growth habits of selected Malayan trees and producing a scientific paper on the topic. Eric Holttum and E J H Corner, previously in charge of the Gardens and who remained at liberty throughout the war, also devoted their time to research.
Mr Corner had chosen to stay in Singapore (although his wife and son had escaped) seeing it as his duty to protect the Gardens’ scientific collections. Just five days after the fall of Singapore, he was appointed secretary and interpreter to Prof Tanakadate. Read more about this period of Mr Corner’s life here (he has sometimes been accused of collaboration).
After demob, John Ewart was one of the first to return to Singapore Botanic Gardens and was in charge of the gardens until the director, Murray Henderson, returned in 1946. John then assumed responsibility for the day-to-day running of the gardens, including making collections for the Herbarium and advising the City Parks Department. In 1946 he was also appointed Agricultural Officer for Singapore (increasing crop production to feed the colony) and carried out those duties alongside his work at the gardens. For a short period in 1954 he was acting Director of the gardens. Under moves to nationalisation he was compulsorily retired in 1957.
When he and his wife Mary and their family came to Tauranga, John grew carnations and chrysanthemums for the cut flower market for a time, as well as avocados. He was also a well-respected member of the International Dendrology Society. John, who returned to Singapore in 1986 for the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Gardening Society, died in Tauranga in 2001 and Mary in 2010.
John’s son Peter, who lives at Omokoroa, has been trying to find out if Aranda Peter Ewart, named for him by his father and registered by Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1951, is available in New Zealand, or if he is able to conform to MPI rules to be able to import it.
The Malayan Orchid Hybrids book by M R Henderson and G H Addison (1956) records that the cross was made in 1944, so during the Japanese occupation. The plant was described as free flowering with up to four flower spikes at a time, ‘but not very robust vegetatively’.
“It seems my father was responsible for the plant from after the war,” Peter says. “He was also responsible for a couple of other orchid hybrids at least, which he named after his other children, Gillian and Andrew, but those flowers did not enjoy commercial success.”
If Peter is able to import the plant, he intends to present one to Auckland City Council for their Wintergarden heated house under the custodianship of Nick Lloyd. “They already have two of its species parents in their collection.”