Peter McCann: Passionate plantsman who could 'put roots on a walking stick'
PETER McCann joined Newry's famous Daisy Hill Nursery at the age of 14 and began his life as a plantsman by washing pots in the potting shed.
But it was while working in the propagating house, dibbling cuttings, that his natural talent was discovered.
Paddy Hanratty, manager of the nursery and a renowned gardener himself, said Peter was “the only man who could put roots on a walking stick”.
Daisy Hill had been a feature of Newry since 1887, when it was opened by Tom Smith on two daisy-covered fields on the west side of the town.
It eventually grew to 60 acres, employing more than 100 people, and was reputed to have held the most comprehensive stock of rare trees, shrubs and plants in Europe.
Many new varieties of flowers and shrubs were produced in its green houses, including the famous Newry Blue, Pieris 'Daisy Hill' and Rosa Macrantha 'Daisy Hill', with cuttings still found around the world.
Plants would be wrapped in hessian and wheeled down to the train station before being transported to the great Irish gardens and estates and, via Greenore port, to the royal houses of Britain and Europe.
Peter himself would come to be regarded as one of Ireland's most expert propagators.
Each year he attended and exhibited at shows such the Alpine Show in Belfast, the Spring Show at Balmoral, the Flower Show in Derry and the Horse Show at Ballsbridge in Dublin.
He would then settle down for the winter when most of the plants were dispatched all over Ireland and Britain.
In 1970 he succeeded Paddy Hanratty as manager. He was appointed by Tom Smith's great-grandson Alan Grills, co-author with E Charles Nelson of Daisy Hill Nursery, Newry: A History of 'The Most Interesting Nursery Probably in the World'.
After half a century of service, Peter's passion for plants also led him to write his own book, The Life of a Plantsman – The Last Days of Daisy Hill Nursery.
In it he jotted down memories of his time there and some of the rare plants and shrubs that he loved tending to before the green houses were finally emptied and the gates closed in 1996, the grounds acquired by Newry and Mourne District Council.
He was awarded the bronze, silver and gold medals for long service from the Royal Horticultural Society, as well as Royal Ulster Agricultural Society coins.
Peter loved plants and loved talking to people about them. He gave inspiring talks throughout the country and had a particular fascination for Alpines.
He had amazing array of tips for the ordinary gardener as well as the specialist and continued to spread the joy of plants long after he had retired.
The other great love of his life was his wife Philomena (née Morley). They were married in 1953 and blessed with four daughters, Patricia, Joan, Phyllis and Carol, and seven beloved grandchildren.
Peter was also a piper with the Thomas Davis Memorial pipe band.
His passion for the music was a constant throughout his life, as was his faith. He was involved in his local church, St Brigid's, where he regularly read and organised other readers.
Peter, who was born in the New Lodge area of Belfast but was evacuated to Bessbrook as a 10-year-old during the Blitz of 1941, died of a sudden heart attack on December 28 last year. He was 85.
He had lived most of his life in Newry and passed away surrounded by his family in the town's hospital, which took its name from his beloved Daisy Hill.
The nursery will be remembered in the many plants that are named after it, as will Peter by all those whose gardens he tended and advised, and by his family who were lucky to witness and share his passion.
He was ‘choice', as he would say of plants he delighted in, and truly was a gentleman with a story to share with all he met. A true Plantsman.