In Memoriam: Mary Grieg
North Vancouver, British Columbia
With the death of Mary Greig on June 19, 1990, at the age of 93, an era of North American rhododendron history came to an end. The important early figures would probably include, among others, such well known personalities as Barto, Gable, Del and Ray James and Nearing. Mary Greig's contribution to the culture of rhododendrons on this continent was as great as any.
Back in 1955 I sat on a frame in John Henny's nursery while he estimated the number of plants that were grown everywhere in America in 1946, when the ARS came into existence. The Royston Nursery share was nearly 10%. Its output was actually very modest, but in the mid-40's, to most gardeners, the rhododendron was an unknown plant whose incredible beauty was yet to be realized.
That rhododendron species became synonymous with Ted and Mary Greig was a fluke. To start their Royston Nursery in 1936, the Greigs first purchased the Alpine Nursery of the Buchanan Simpsons at Cowichan Lake. Alpines interested them, rhododendrons didn't and only George Buchanan Simpson's insistence "that they'll grow on you" made them include the rhododendrons. Ted always preferred alpines and wild flowers; it was Mary who became North America's leading rhododendron expert.
Today, with a multitude of publications available, it is hard to realize the tremendous importance of The Species of Rhododendron edited by J.B. Stevenson. It was the very first handbook and contained technical information of all known species. In time it was to prove inadequate, but from 1930 it enabled the genus to advance in an orderly manner. It is not known when Mary received her copy, probably about the time they were refused admittance to the English Rhododendron Society because they were "commercial." It was this book which let her sort out which of her seedlings were probably hybrids. Remember, it was at this time growers of species seed were considering all seedlings true to the packet label. Mary constantly changed and updated that species book as information was published.
The Royston Nursery catalogue, published for the last time in 1954, remains the only commonsense one ever published in North America. She followed the series as found in The Species of Rhododendron. It was obvious to Mary that plants of the same series should be grouped together to give customers a greater understanding of the genus.
In our house, she was always known as Mrs. No-Nonsense Greig. Once when the entire family was departing after a happy weekend she said, "I'm glad you came, I enjoyed you being here, I'm pleased you are all leaving."
Because of her friendship (by correspondence) with Jim Russell, manager of the Sunningdale Nurseries in England, rare and unusual species not listed in any catalogue were added to her orders. Between 1950 and 1954, the writer of this article was responsible for preparing and shipping all the Royston orders. In later years, Sunningdale labels bearing his printing still hung from many Royston plants. It took years, but in time, these choice species found their way to collectors' gardens.
The climax of all Mary's efforts was being asked to judge the first early show staged by the Seattle Species Group. She was confronted by trusses, most of which came from plants she had sold. No one questioned her when in her emphatic manner she rejected an obvious hybrid, nor when she gave multiple 1st prizes to trusses in the same class which she considered to have equal merit.
The logical outcome of this furthering of species interest and knowledge, was the creation of the Species Foundation, a group which by the distribution of superior true species, continued Mary's work.
In 1966, the ARS jointly awarded Ted and Mary Greig, a gold medal.
The entire nursery was sold in 1966 to the city of Vancouver and was planted mainly in Stanley Park and Queen Elizabeth Arboretum. During the winters of 1981-2 and 1982-3, 3,000 species were moved from Stanley Park to the protection of the VanDusen Botanical Gardens where they form the core of the Sino-Himalayan section.
In 1989 the gardens in Stanley Park were dedicated as "The Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron Garden," with the bronze plaque being unveiled in her presence by John Bond of Windsor Great Park. Mr. Bond is probably the world's leading plantsman. It was a very special occasion for a very, very special plantswoman and was attended by members of the Vancouver Parks Board, friends of the ARS and all her family.