Saving the Stevens Garden

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).

‘Sunset Snows’, a Jean Stevens-bred iris, is pictured in a Tauranga garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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.

Leucadendron ‘Safari Sunset’. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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.

Natural hybrid?

Often when we think of hybridising, we think of human intervention – someone with a paintbrush dutifully transferring pollen from one potential parent to another. But Nature is quite happy to occasionally create her own hybrids.

The two likely parents growing side-by-side in the Stewart Island garden – Pseudopanax lesonnii ‘Gold Splash’ (left) and Pseudopanax ferox in its fearsome juvenile form. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Although the hybrid doesn’t look much like the lancewood Pseudopanax ferox, keep in mind that this tree changes appearance as it matures, eventually becoming a mop-top with normal-looking foliage.

All the owner knows is that he didn’t plant a tree in the place where it’s growing and inquiries have led him to believe that he has a one-off. Natural hybrids are often sterile.

And what is thought to be the resulting offspring. The owner is watching it with interest. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Literary plant fanciers

A week to the winter solstice and, given the weather of May around New Zealand, who knows what else is in store for us? Having a cosy nook, a hot drink and a good book are pretty much a full-proof list of ingredients for a stormy or wet day. And while I enjoy reading books from the ‘Gardening’ section of a bookstore or library, there are other ways in which gardening and plant stories can be told.

By the time Orwell’s roses flowered that summer, the Spanish civil war had broken out. As they grew, Europe spiralled closer to conflict. But the buds would still swell and the petals would still fall, and in the midst of death there would be new life, a cycle that helps explain why gardens and nature more generally have been such a comfort to so many through the grief and loss of the pandemic.

Gaby Hinsliff

Reviewing Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit for The Guardian newspaper (read the full piece here), Gaby Hinsliff notes that the writer George Orwell (1903-1950, real name Eric Blair) is often considered a dour and austere man who took on serious subjects – poverty, worker exploitation, anarchy, totalitarianism – but that Solnit’s book reveals him to be someone who also enjoyed gardening, both vegetable and ornamental, and who, knowing he was dying from tuberculosis, asked for a rose to be planted on his grave.

The cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire where George Orwell lived and gardened from 1936 to 1940. Photo: Wikimedia

“Orwell’s readers at the time, it should be said, did not always appreciate his favourite pastime. Having written about his roses in Tribune, he noted in a subsequent column that ‘an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois’.”

New Zealanders have the chance to see a livestream interview with Rebecca Solnit on August 28 as part of the Auckland Writers Festival. See details here.

American crime writer Rex Stout (1886-1975) penned a series of books featuring the overweight and eccentric New York private detective Nero Wolfe, a dedicated orchid grower with 10,000 plants in growing rooms on the rooftop of his brownstone building. He visits the plants twice a day, 2 hours at a time, and employs a knowledgeable and careful gardener.

Not much can get Wolfe to leave home, but a rare black orchid lures him to a flower show (Black Orchids, 1942). Unfortunately, the event is overshadowed by a murder.

In 1963 Stout penned a piece for Life magazine about Nero Wolfe’s love for orchids. “If he ever talks to himself he keeps it strictly private, but I have often heard him talk to orchids. He’ll cock his head at a bench of Miltonias in full bloom and say distinctly, ‘Much too loud. Why don’t you learn to whisper?’ Not that he ever whispers.”

Read the full piece here (scroll to the bottom), and see a list of orchids registered with the Royal Horticulture Society that have been named for Nero Wolfe and other characters.

Roald Dahl – a man of many talents – was another orchid fancier. His widow Felicity (Liccy) is on record as saying that onions and orchids were his horticultural passions and growing them appealed to his competitive nature. Read more here.

The homes of two of New Zealand’s most famous writers – Katherine Mansfield (Wellington) and Dame Ngaio Marsh (Christchurch) – are both open to the public, although the Marsh one not on a regular basis. Read more about the Marsh home and garden here and Mansfield’s childhood house and garden here.

Step-by-step: Teacup arrangement

Floral artist and teacher Francine Thomas enjoys making teacup arrangements as gifts. Cups are sourced from op shops, florist’s foam online and plant material from her garden, “whatever’s going on the day, just look for a colour theme”.

1: Lay out all your plant material. Cut the florist’s foam to fit the cup and soak in water until it sinks (about 1 minute).

2: Place the wet foam in the cup and make a ‘collar’ of foliage (eg, Pelargonium leaves) around the edge of the foam.

3: Use a textural, upright form (eg, Leucadendron), put one in the centre and make a small grouping to one side.

4: Mentally divide the foam into thirds and add contrasting foliage at these three points. Add textural contrast (eg, Sedum) in the gaps between, aiming to have it sitting up a little.

5: Add a flower (eg, rose) for volume and height, using buds to bring the same colour through the design. By this stage, the arrangement should be a half-sphere (ie, higher in the middle).

6: Add another flower (eg, dahlia) for a bigger, round form in the thirds, stepping buds up into the design for unity.

7: Add a little colour (eg, tightly closed Alstroemeria), also for scale and proportion.

8: The finished product, with a version in pale yellows and whites alongside. A beautiful, easy to make, gift or table centrepiece.

See Francine’s floral demonstration videos here.

Saying it with flowers

Embracing life’s opportunities is second nature to award-winning floral artist Francine Thomas so when Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions saw her demonstrating work dry up, she taught herself how to make videos on her phone, built a bench in her shed and carried on.

“You can’t put a monetary value on everything,” Francine says of her videos which have continued beyond lockdowns. “It was about people’s state of mind and doing something to cheer us all up. I’ve had feedback from all around the world. Overseas, people were really struggling with the lockdowns and fears.”

Francine Thomas with one of her teacup arrangements. Step-by-step instructions for making one of these are in the next post. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The videos – which give full rein to Francine’s bubbly sense of humour when ‘Fred in the Shed’ shares hands-on construction tips – have led to Zoom presentations to groups in Pakistan and Singapore.

“Being creative settles my mind so it’s helping me as much as it’s helping them,” she says.

Flowers, floristry and floral art have been part of Francine’s life for as long as she can remember. Her aunt, Betty Budge, was the first florist in Whangarei and Francine’s mum Glenys, and in turn Francine, both helped out.

“I can remember peering over the bench watching them at work – all the old-fashioned way with toothpicks and wire, treating flowers by crushing the stems and scalding them with boiling water, and flowers being gathered from gardens.”

When the family moved to Tokoroa, Glenys did floristry from home while working as a nurse matron at the local hospital, with Francine wiring flowers for wedding bouquets and arrangements.

Eventually Glenys moved to Tauranga and started a flower wholesalers that Francine, who by then was married and doing wedding flowers on her own account, took over. She also, finally, gained qualifications in horticulture and floristry and joined the local floral art group.

Francine has been the Bay of Plenty Floral Art Society Designer of the Year five times, won the New Zealand Designer of the Year (2016) and the Australian Designer of the Year (2018), and been national demonstrator for the Floral Art Society since 2010. She was this country’s official demonstrator at the World Association of Floral Artists show in Dublin in 2014 and will be demonstrator/convenor for the world show in Auckland in 2024.

At the 2024 show she will also perform one of her renowned floral theatres. “When you do a national certificate in demonstrating, you have to make a portfolio of how you would do a floral theatre, working out a theme, lighting, special effects and so on. I thought, ‘well, I’ve planned it all, why not do it’?” One of the biggest was Symphony of Flowers, performed in Virginia in the US, including a symphony orchestra playing live and 55 students on stage, the whole thing also being a chance to promote New Zealand and the Bay of Plenty.

“There are no real boundaries in floral art,” Francine says. “You have to use the fundamentals of design to make it pleasing to the eye and make sure plant material dominates the design, but other than that you can let your imagination run free.”

  • As a special treat there will be an extra post tomorrow giving Francine’s step-by-step instructions for making a small floral arrangement in a teacup. Visit Francine’s website, which includes a shop.

This article was originally published in New Zealand Gardener and appears here with permission.