A Garden of NZ Roses

As we sink gently further into autumn my roses are definitely past their best but I’ve stopped dead-heading to give them a rest before pruning. However, the lower part of the South Island is a bit behind our warmer climate so it was with delight that last month I found Queenstown Botanical Gardens flush with roses, admittedly not the pristine blooms of early summer but holding out against the dying of the light and still attractive.

The other charming thing to discover about the garden is that all the beds feature roses that were either bred in New Zealand or have a New Zealand connection.

Wise Woman, bred by Bob Matthews of Whanganui, was named to mark the 2004 centenary of midwifery registration in New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Scent to Remember was released by Rob Somerfield of Tauranga in 2006 as a Hospice NZ fundraiser. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Aotearoa – known as New Zealand everywhere else – was released by Sam McGredy in 1990 to mark this country’s 150th anniversary. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Nelson Girls was bred by Chris Warner of England and named in 2006 by importer Tasman Bay Roses to mark the 125th anniversary of the school. In Australia, it’s known as Serenity. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Kate Sheppard was released in 1993 to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Kate Sheppard rose was bred by George Sherwood of Manawatu when he started his hobby and of Taranaki when this 2012 interview was conducted. George, a J-Force veteran, died on March 2 this year. He named it for the woman who spearheaded the movement to win New Zealand women the vote.

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.

Something old, something new

Another snippet from my visit to Wellington Botanic Gardens was meeting the lovely rose Madam President.


Madam President rose, the full-bloom has the look of a camellia. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Bred by Sam McGredy and released in 1975, it is as popular today as it was then, according to the Rose Society of South Australia website (read the entry here). Sam had migrated to New Zealand from Northern Ireland in 1972 and was asked to “do” a rose to mark the golden jubilee of the Country Women’s Institute (CWI – now known as WI). The CWI picked the name and Sam’s New Zealand agent Phil Gardner chose the rose.

Georgina Campbell is establishing a collection of McGredy roses in her Cheops Garden near Hastings. Read more here.Hayden Foulds of the NZ Rose Society has been in touch with a reminder that May, June and July are optimum months to plant new roses. One of his picks from the new releases this winter is Magnifi-scent, a fragrant hybrid tea.

“Not red, but not pink either,” Hayden says. “A great colour to mix with other roses and garden plants. Blooms usually come one to a stem and with a quick repeat, the plant is never without flowers. A bushy, medium-growing plant with glossy disease tolerant foliage.”

Magnifi-scent. Photo: Amore Roses

Hailing from Vancouver, Magnifi-scent is from one of Canada’s leading rose breeders, Brad Jalbert, who says his philosophy is simple: “I listen to my heart, and my rose friends, and I try to breed roses that people will enjoy and can grow easily.”

Magnifi-scent is available in New Zealand through Amore Roses, near Hamilton.

Rose trial winners 2014

Hayden Foulds of the New Zealand Rose Society has sent news of the winners from the national trial grounds in Palmerston North, announced last week.


Winner of the 2014 Gold Star of the South Pacific, Christchurch Remembers bred by Rob Somerfield. Photo: Hayden Foulds


The Gold Star of the South Pacific, the top prize from the trials, went to a red rose named to commemorate the Christchurch earthquakes, Christchurch Remembers, and is from the increasingly successful stable of Rob Somerfield (Glenavon Roses) from Te Puna, near Tauranga.

“The name had to go to a red rose,” Rob says. He hopes a bed of the rose will form part of the official memorial once plans are finalised. The rose will be released to the New Zealand market in 2016 or 2017.

Rob also received two Certificates of Merit for the pale pink Eye Candy and the tangerine-orange Hot Topic, also due for commercial release in 2016 or 2017.


Christophe, bred by Colin Dickson, won a Certificate of Merit. Photo: Hayden Foulds

The other Certificate of Merit was presented to the vibrant orange Christophe, bred by Colin Dickson of Northern Ireland and entered by Matthews Nurseries in Wanganui.

Rob has now won five Gold Stars now with only the legendary Sam McGredy in front, although Hayden points out that Sam won most of his in the era when two or even three were awarded each year, rather than just one as has been the case for the last 20 years.

Rob’s Gold Star winners are: Star Quality (2004);  Pacific Glory (2006); Sunline (2007); Love Heart (2009); Christchurch Remembers (2014).

The New Zealand Rose Society trials are now into their 44th year within the Dugald Mackenzie Rose Gardens in Palmerston North. The trials test new varieties from New Zealand and international rose breeders and are assessed over two years by a panel of 20 judges. They mark for things such as freedom of flowering, health, plant quality, flower quality and fragrance.

At the conclusion of each trial, those roses which have gained an average of 70% are recognised with awards and reflect the consistently high performance that they have achieved during trial.

What’s in a name?

The topic of naming new plants for commercial release is always an interesting aside when I talk to people involved with breeding and hybridising – how do they choose a name for their plant? Is it straight from the heart or a more businesslike proposition?

When I visited the Amazing Iris Garden near Katikati in November I was amused to see a row of plants with the tag Baboon Bottom. It’s hard to imagine someone showing off their garden without trying to avoid that name or offering an apology on its behalf. But American Brad Kasperek names all the irises he breeds at his Zebra Gardens in Utah for wild animals so here come Tiger Honey, Bewilderbeest and Orangutan Orange (perhaps he only sells them two by two?).


Would Baboon Bottom smell as sweet by any other name? Photo: Sandra Simpson

Personally, I think it’s a bit daft, especially when you get irises called Drunk Skunk and Ode to a Toad, but then I was never a fan of Sexy Rexy, a perfectly nice Sam McGredy rose burdened with a silly name. In the video link (click on his name) he reveals that left to his own devices the red rose that is Olympiad would have been named Frank Sinatra – and also reveals just how successful Olympiad was for him in the American market.

Sam has had more winners with his names than not, including one rose that he didn’t even breed. Schneewittchen is a particularly famous rose bred in 1958 that is still popular around the world and grown widely in this country. Never heard of it?

When it was due to be released in Britain, Sam (who then lived in Northern Ireland and had one of the UK’s largest rose-breeding nurseries) and the breeder’s agent got talking and Sam advised that although it was a good rose, the name would hold it back. “Well, would you give it an English name,” he was asked. He agreed and in due course came up with … Iceberg. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tauranga rose breeder Rob Somerfield agonises over names – it has to be something that stands out from the crowd of roses on the market but equally it has to be appealing (refer: Baboon Bottom). “The name is so important, it’s another marketing tool,” Rob says. “When a good name is used on a dud rose it’s a real shame.”

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Blackberry Nip. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Blackberry Nip was his first commercial release and is still a strong seller (it now also has a climbing form). That name came to him in a flash, partly from the colour of the bloom. I had a favourite great-aunt whose preferred tipple was Blackberry Nip so I have a soft spot for Rob’s rose – and that is exactly how the whole thing works.

Rosebowl Festival

Hot off the press from Hamilton Gardens are this year’s Pacific Festival Rosebowl results, announced yesterday. The roses entered for judging must all be New Zealand raised. They have one year to become established in the Rogers Rose Garden and then are eligible for judging for five years.


Blackberry Nip, the bush rose. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Most Fragrant: Climbing Blackberry Nip, bred by Rob Somerfield of Te Puna (see the Specialist Growers page for more on Rob). This is a purpley-pink rose as its name suggests.
Children’s Choice: Star Quality, Rob Somerfield, (salmon pink).
Best Hybrid Tea: My Girl, Sam McGredy (and named by his friend Ned Nicely of the Tauranga City Council parks department) (pink) .
Best Floribunda: Honeymoon, David Benny, Balclutha (cream).
Best Climber: Climbing Blackberry Nip.
Rose of the Year: My Girl.