Sam McGredy obituary: Champion Rose breeder with an irreverent streak

McGredy’s expertise was partnered with a flair for publicity

Sam McGredy was known for his generosity and appreciation for a job well done.

Sam McGredy was known for his generosity and appreciation for a job well done.


Sam McGredy

Born: January 12th, 1932

Died: August 25th, 2019

Sam McGredy, who has died in his 88th year in his adopted home of New Zealand, was a Portadown native and one of the world’s greatest rose breeders. For him, a rose had to combine appearance and fragrance. He won many of the great international rose prizes in Ireland, Britain, Europe, Asia and Australasia. One of his outstanding successes was taking the Golden Rose at the Hague Rose Trials an unprecedented four times.

McGredy had an eye for a rose. He could pick a winner from thousands of seedlings. He saw the keys to plant breeding as observation, quantity and efficiency. Observation taught him what was happening: having a reasonable quantity of seedlings improved the chance of finding an outstanding flower: attention to detail improved germination rates.

Combined with breeding expertise was a flair for publicity. He had an ability to cultivate relationships with the famous, and to spot social and cultural trends. He wished to name a rose Picasso, and contacted the artist. He was delighted when Picasso replied in the affirmative. The late Queen Mother was another who gave permission, her name being used for Elizabeth of Glamis.

Samuel Darragh McGredy was born in January 1932 in Portadown, youngest of three children and only son to Sam McGredy and his wife Ruth (née Darragh). His father was the third generation of Sam McGredys to operate a nursery in Portadown, and be noted for rose breeding. When he was two his father died suddenly. He was educated at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, Greenmount Agricultural College in Co Tyrone and Reading University.

After formal education, he gained experience in a wholesale nursery in Surrey, then took over the family nursery. After his father’s death an uncle by marriage had managed the nursery and kept it open through difficult times.

Initially McGredy endeavoured to continue rose breeding where his father left off, but quickly decided it would be better to start new strains and use his own methods. Within a half-dozen years he had won his first awards.

McGredy was also one of a group which successfully lobbied the British government to introduce plant breeders’ rights in the 1960s.

In 1972 he emigrated to New Zealand. He saw the climate in the north of the country as highly suitable for rose breeding, since greenhouses were not needed. The political situation at home also contributed to his move. The Troubles were at their most intense, and Loyalists had murdered a close friend. He settled on the fringes of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. There he concentrated on rose breeding, rather than running a general plant nursery.

He helped put New Zealand rose breeding on the map. He encouraged other breeders, and was instrumental in establishing Rose Introducers of New Zealand to bring breeders together. In New Zealand, too, he successfully lobbied government for plant breeders’ rights.

McGredy told how a bowler-hatted Englishman came up to him at a flower show, stood on his toes, and told him he was 'a disgrace to his profession'

Despite nearly half a century in New Zealand, he was very conscious of his Irish roots. He gave some of his roses Irish names. His Dublin Bay has been New Zealand’s top ranked climbing rose for 30 years.

McGredy was known for generosity and appreciation for a job well done. Books and music interested him. Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky used play loudly in the mornings. Afternoons were likely to be accompanied by Dixieland jazz.

His talents attracted honours. In 1994 the Queen honoured him with a CBE for services to horticulture. In 199 Massey University in New Zealand conferred him with an honorary doctorate in science.

McGredy had an irreverent streak. He bred a rose called Sexy Rexy. European rose lovers insisted on his keeping the name. Some of the English rose fraternity thought it “disgusting”. McGredy told how a bowler-hatted Englishman came up to him at a flower show, stood on his toes, and told him he was “a disgrace to his profession”.

He is survived by his wife Jillian, daughters Kathryn, Maria and Clodagh, sons Peter and Alan, step-daughters Andrea and Carol, stepsons Roman and John, and grandchildren. He was predeceased by his sisters Molly and Paddy (Patricia).