In Memoriam: Edward Gray Millais
Ted Millais (March 15, 1918, to Aug. 2, 2003) was the youngest grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais. However, it was his uncle, the Victorian naturalist J. G. Millais and author of the great two-volume edition on rhododendrons dated 1917 and 1924, who inspired and kindled Ted's lifelong interest in rhododendrons from a young age.
Ted's first job was at Sunningdale Nurseries near Woking. The privilege of working there was considered so great that they paid him no wages. He started his first nursery in 1938 at Bracknell, but this had to be sold during the war. Ted was a Captain in the artillery of the Eighth Army, but his experiences in North Africa and Italy were something he rarely talked about. Ted met his wife, Romy, in 1946, and they bought Crosswater Farm at Churt, near Farnham. Here they grew mushrooms until 1969, when Ted developed his long-standing hobby of rhododendrons into Millais Nurseries, which now grows one of the largest ranges of rhododendrons in the country.
From the small beginnings, he was successful in rooting cuttings where many of his competitors were still grafting onto R. ponticum seedlings, with its inherent lack of uniformity and problems of suckers. Ever keen to supply only plants on their own roots, he was the first UK nurseryman to import micro-propagated young plants from the USA, and in doing so, introduced many new American varieties to the UK market for the first time. Over the years the nursery has continued to import new hybrids from the USA and a large area was developed as a test and display garden for these plants.
His enthusiasm for rhododendrons then spread to species, and his eyes were opened wide when he visited Sikkim for the first time in 1982 on a trek lead by Daku Tensing, the wife of Tensing Norgay of Everest fame. From then until his last trek in 1995, he and his ever-supportive wife Romy returned most years to the Himalayas. With the gradual opening up of China to visitors during the 1980s, Ted was amongst the first Westerners to follow in the footsteps of 1920. This being in the days before any trekking companies existed in China, he initially obtained visas and permits through the Botanic Gardens at Kunming, and later hosted and showed Chinese botanists some of the great British collections in exchange. Throughout this time he was always amused and delighted to be called "Professor" on official documents. He then arranged some of his own treks, with companions including leading experts from the UK and America, such as David Chamberlain, Peter Cox, Keith Rushforth, Warren Berg and Steve Hootman. Among Ted's more interesting introductions were late forms of R. augustinii, July flowering R. decorum, denudatum, glanduliferum, huianum, irroratum var. ninyuenense and ochraceum.
Ted had a purposeful breeding programme, seeking good yellows, powdery-mildew resistant cinnabarinum types, and late flowering varieties, especially scented azaleas. Against these objectives, he was particularly successful and will be remembered for R. 'High Summer', a late June flowering pale yellow; R. 'Spring Sunshine', a neat compact yellow in early May with silvery new growth and good indumentum, and R. 'Golden Splendour' which is deep yellow in late June. 'Pink Gin' and 'Crosswater Belle' enable gardeners to grow cinnabarinum types where previously they would have succumbed to powdery mildew. His acclaimed R. viscosum hybrids 'Cassley', 'Moidart', and 'Torridon' are noted for their late flowering and scent. There are also many others in the pipeline, yet to be named. Indeed it was his determination to see his beloved latest hybrids flower in July that probably kept him fighting his pancreas cancer for so long.
In 1987 Ted was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Loder Cup in recognition of the value of his work with rhododendrons, and in 1988 he was invited onto the RHS Rhododendron and Camellia Committee where he served until 1999.
Ted was a plantsman who specialised in rhododendrons almost exclusively. However, in later life he did branch out, and when this happened he did so with extraordinary determination to learn everything he could about his subject. He continued to develop and plant the six-acre gardens at Crosswater, and in his last two years purchased and planted a significant collection of new Sorbus and Magnolia, and created a new arboretum area.
In personal life, Ted and Romy formed a very close family with their four sons and a daughter. He was a Churchwarden at St. Mary's Frensham, and loved fishing in Scotland, where he would return most years.