This is the blog posting I hoped I wouldn’t have to write for a long time yet. But the day has come, and my heart is heavy. I’m taking a break from Wordless Wednesday this week because plant lovers in Atlantic Canada are feeling a loss tonight.
It has been almost a decade since I met the famous, formidable and funny plantsman Captain Richard (Dick) Steele. Our meeting was happenstance: Longsuffering Spouse and I were out driving around on the south shore of Nova Scotia in late spring. He, of course, had one eye peeled to the water, looking at fishing boats: I was looking at gardens. We came around a curve in what was a particularly twisty road, and I saw wooden racks of interesting plants, and a modest sign: Bayport Plant Farm. “Stop the truck!” I hollered.
LSS, being an agreeable sort, piled the binders on. At my urging, he backed us up and pulled in the parking lot. I clambered out to examine the plants, and he ambled up a path beyond a line of large yews. Moments later, he came bounding back and grabbed my arm. “You HAVE to see these!” he announced, grinning from ear to ear. I followed him, and stopped in my tracks. Blue poppies. In bloom. Around them, dozens of rhododendrons filled with silken blossoms, irises flinging their fascinating flowers skyward, a joyful riot of evergreens and perennials, foliage and flowers. I was in love.
(Dick Steele with "Other Jodee" on the Great Plant Hunting Expedition of 2007, en route to Battle Harbour. He had two Jodis, both left-handed, a tad mischievous, and besotted with him, among the pilgrims on this voyage. )
A few moments later I was taken to meet the owner of all this beauty, a dignified gentleman I assumed to be in his mid-sixties. (He was actually in his mid-80s). Snow-white hair and beard, glasses smudged with some potting mix from the plants he was transplanting, firm handshake. A retired naval captain, he had a stern countenance until you saw the twinkle in his eye and heard him laugh. If he liked you, he liked you forever, and treasured you as his friend. If he didn’t like you…my understanding from others is that he was exquisitely polite, or else not to be found. For some inscrutable reason, (inscrutable on his part--I was smitten immediately) we hit it off very well, and I owe so much of what I know about plants to having learned from this enthusiastic and generous man. To many people, he was Captain Steele. To those who had the honour to call him friend, he was just ‘Dick’.
Dick has been working with plants, especially rhododendrons and azaleas, but also many other plants that caught his eye, for well over fifty years. I know of exactly two types of plant he heartily despises: goutweed (Aegopodium) and Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum). A man after my own heart! He has developed countless hundreds of cultivars, which he has been cold-testing at his farm on the south shore of Nova Scotia and at his home farm in New Brunswick, and has donated who knows how many plants to public gardens and parks, to his beloved Atlantic Rhododendron and Horticultural Society, to friends near and far.
“Take this home and see how it does for you on that damn windy hill of yours!” was a regular comment when I came to visit. A visit with Dick usually started out with a tour around the 30 acre property known as Bayport Plant Farm, and wrapped up with tea in the shed/office where countless visitors had come to talk plants, buy plants, bring plants, ask questions. Although he wasn’t the best email correspondent I have ever encountered, he thought nothing of picking up the phone and calling to tell me about something that had struck his fancy. If he was praised for his plant breedings, he would wave it off, saying, "I don't run around taking credit for breeding this plant or that. The plant does all the work, but I had a lot of fun with helping them."
It was from Dick I learned about the amazing dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and how one of the oldest specimens in cultivation is right in Halifax. From him came a cutting of the huge, magnificent wisteria from his property that he insisted would grow in my garden as well as it did his. The pieris in my front garden, covered in buds and quivering in anticipation of its bloom period ss one he said I couldn't go wrong with. He always teasingly scolded me that I didn’t have nearly enough rhododendrons, and I always said that the garden wasn’t quite ready to take on too many, because of my wind and clay and and and…
Every late summer for the past number of years, Dick has led an annual plant-hunting expedition to north-western Newfoundland and southern Labrador, culminating at Battle Harbour. I had the privilege of being one of about a dozen on that trip in 2007, having him blaze past me on the Labrador Highway in his new Honda, listening to his stories in the evenings as we gathered the group together for supper, watching him charge up the side of the hill on Battle Harbour—charge along, with two canes, two artificial hips and one replaced knee. Or maybe it was two knees and a hip. Whichever it was, he put people half his age to shame with his enthusiasms and his energy, and his boundless curiosity about plants.
In 2008, I was too unwell to go; in 2009, there was no trip. And now, there will be no more trips, at least not with Dick as chief expeditionary leader and plant hunter extraordinaire.
(Yellow rhododendron, 'Nancy Steele', bred by Captain Richard Steele. Photo from Atlantic Rhodo Society website)
Our last conversation was before Christmas, and it was no good to ask how HE was, because I knew the answer would be an amused but pithy, "I'm old!" as he always replied when asked how he was, and then he'd change the subject. I knew from talking with his daughter Diana in January that he was slowing down, but given that he had celebrated his 91st or 92nd or 93rd--no one seemed exactly sure--birthday with us in Labrador in 2007, we weren’t all that surprised. Then he went into hospital, and a niece who I have known for years gently explained to me that he wouldn’t in all likelihood be getting out again. And our formidable plantsman slipped off to the great greenhouse beyond on Sunday evening, March 14th.
To say I’m tremendously sad at his passing is an understatement. Look at me sideways, and pass me the tissues. The sadness is shared by any number of family members, friends, fellow gardeners, horticulturists, plants people around Atlantic Canada, and beyond. Yet beyond the sadness, I’m also determined to honour his life, and his legacy, by remembering him and his passion for plants, and following in his footsteps, at least a little.
I read a quotation on Monday by Sharon Lovejoy, in which she says, "I grow gardens for my life and my soul." So did my friend Captain Dick Steele. We’ll not see his like again any time soon, but we will carry on his work.
And you know who my next book will be dedicated to. My teacher, my friend. Fair winds and following seas to you, dearest Dick.