Lives Remembered

Sam McGredy: Co Armagh 'Rose King' left the world a more beautiful place

Sam McGredy was known as the 'Rose King'

SAM McGredy was the international 'Rose King' with deep Co Armagh roots who leaves behind a vivid legacy of hundreds of new varieties of the iconic flower.

Born in Portadown, he was the fourth Sam McGredy to run a rose breeding business in the town, its fields producing a dazzling display of colour each year at Woodside, Ballyoran and Mullavilly.

But when Sam was handed the keys of the firm aged 22, he knew nothing about roses.

His father had died when he was two, leaving an uncle in charge, and Sam had to learn the business virtually from scratch.

He set off on a journey of discovery across Europe, meeting other budding breeders, gathering specimens and learning tricks of the trade.

And armed with 1,000 plants, some seeds and a determination to conquer the industry, he decided to up sticks in 1972 and swap north Armagh for the warmer and more peaceful climate of New Zealand's North Island.

Creating a new hybrid rose is a deceptively simple task.

The first stage is easy: simply take two flowers with colours, fragrances or growing qualities you would like to combine, and use your fingers to transfer the pollen from one to the seed-bearing pods of another for fertilisation.

The probability of success, however, is around eight million to one.

"So you don't raise just a few seeds and a few seedlings," Sam explained.

"I had about 60,000 a year here. In Ireland I had about 160,000 a year."

These he would whittle down to a couple of thousand after the first year, propagate, select the best, and then narrow down again before being dispatched to agents around the world in the hope that just one or two may eventually reach the market.

"It's 10 years from the day you actually make that pollenation into something you can sell."

Sam McGredy was known as the 'Rose King'

Over the years Sam won every award in the industry, from Gold Medals in the UK to the Golden Rose in Holland and seven All-American Rose Selection honours. He also received a CBE and had a rose featured on a Royal Mail stamp.

The financial rewards were also considerable. One red rose named Olympiad earned him between £100,000 and £500,000 a year over more than two decades.

And the opportunity to choose an appropriate name for each new variety led to friendships with a host of celebrities.

Ginger Rogers said that after her Academy Award her rose was the second nicest thing that ever happened to her and she and Sam remained in contact until her death.

The Queen Mother and Coronation Street's Violet Carson (Ena Sharples) were among other admirers.

In retirement Sam and his second wife Jillian were able to spend time enjoying music, travelling and rugby, with Auckland's Eden Park, home of the All Blacks, chosen for a celebration of his life this month.

He always remained proud of his Irish roots, his hand-written letters and notes penned in green ink and his emails even using a green font. And when he took charge of his nursery he made March 17 a paid holiday years before it became official.

Jim Lyttle, who runs the website and regularly photographed Sam's roses for his catalogues in the 1960s and '70s, said it was with great sadness that he heard of his passing.

"He will always be remembered in his birth town of Portadown and throughout Northern Ireland," he said.

"Sam's creations of new roses have left this world a more beautiful place."

Samuel Darragh McGredy died aged 87 on August 25. He is survived by his wife, five children, step-children and family circle.

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Lives Remembered