Biography by Sir Peter Smithers
* 9.12.1913.  -  8.6.2006



I was born in Yorkshire, England, 9.12.1913. I was brought up by Nanny and Granny during World War 1,
my parents both being absent on war duty. Nanny was a keen naturalist and I contracted a gardening virus at that early age. It has never left me to this day.

When at school at Harrow I began an index of every plant and packet of seeds I ever acquired, a practice which continues to this day, the numbers now being in the 32,000 range. While at Harrow I fell for lilies in a big way and began growing Lilium sulphureum. Fifty years later I visited Burma, recovered bulbs of that lily and began breeding from it, later registering two grexes and one clone and distributing the seed. While at Oxford I became a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society and am now an Honorary Fellow with the Veitch Memorial Medal in Gold for contributions to Horticulture.


World War II did not entirely interrupt my gardening as might have been expected.
At sea in the winter of 1939 1 was gravely ill and when recovered was invalided to shore duty, first in France whence I got away two days before the collapse of that country and the armistice with the Germans, then in London on security duty at the time of the parachute landings by German agents, then as Assistant Naval Attache at the British Embassy in Washington in charge of the exchange of Naval intelligence between the Admiralty and the Navy Department. My small garden in Georgetown was a failure: too busy with the war. But then I was appointed acting Naval Attache in Mexico, Central America and Panama, obliged to travel widely monitoring possible submarine shore contacts. It was a gardener's idea of heaven, and I made a small garden in Cuernavaca replete with orchid species, palms and aroids and also collected palm specimens for the British Museum Herbarium. But, more importantly, in Mexico in 1943, 1 collected a wife, Dojean Sayman, of St. Louis, Missouri, who has put up with my gardening habits and other failings ever since.

Back in England after the war, and a Member of Parliament, I took over the garden of my late father at Itchen Stoke, and then moved to that of my late mother in Winchester, Colebrook House, next to the Cathedral, where I made a garden based upon the three medieval streams which ran through it. Orchid growing continued in a greenhouse built off the dining room.

For a time I was a member of Parliament for Winchester and Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office. I later resigned from Parliament and the Government when elected Secretary-General of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. There I made a garden in the Official Residence, working for the first time in a continental climate.

On retirement from Strasbourg my wife and I built a house and made a garden at Vico Morcote, Switzerland, above Lake Lugano, in one of the best gardening climates in Europe, where an extremely wide range of plants can be grown successfully. Here the specialties were magnolias, of which I registered the hybrid 'William Watson', tree peonies, of which I registered a number of hybrids bred from Paeonia rockii, and the lily hybrids mentioned previously. The garden was stuffed full of bulbous plants of every kind including hybrids of Amaryllis belladonna. In the greenhouse I continued an ambitious breeding program in Nerine sarniensis, which ended in 1995 when the program was sold to Exbury, from which famous garden so many of my parent plants originated, and where it is being continued with enthusiasm by Nicholas de Rothschild.

Though the garden at Vico Morcote contained many specialist collections, it was conceived as an ecosystem of exotic plants in which the plants themselves would do most of the work. The work load would diminish as the owners grew old. This, in fact, worked out successfully and the garden is now easily maintained with the help of a part time gardener twice a week in season and once a week in winter. Out of the garden at Vico Morcote there grew a photographic activity, based on the plants growing in the garden. This won eight Gold Medals for Photography from the Royal Horticultural Society and resulted in 23 one-man shows of photography, mostly in the United States, including one at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Writing in Country Life, the President of the Royal Horticultural Society, Sir Simon Horby, wrote: "Sir Peter may have some equals round the world as a gardener, but probably none as a plant photographer".

I regard gardening and plants as the other half of life, a counterpoise to the rough-and-tumble of politics. When the telephone at Colebook House rang with Downing Street on the other end asking whether I would agree to join the MacMillan Government as a Minister in the Foreign Office, I was busy pruning my standard roses. But I accepted with delight! When my constituents would visit me in the garden at Colebrook House at the weekend to present their problems, I was likely to say "All right, tell me about it while I plant these tulips: I must get them in before it rains". This was well understood in a country constituency and tended to gain votes rather than lose them. Also it was good for the tulips. So life was a harmonious whole of two contrasting halves. Now, at age 83 (1997), 1 work less in the garden and much less in politics, but thanks to the imaginative initiative of the International Bulb Society in setting up the "bulb robin", I am gardening on the Internet and greatly enjoying it.

8.6.2006


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Sir Peter Smithers


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updated 13.02.18




 

 

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updated 13.02.18