John Hunter: Preeminent Narcissus Breeder
John and Marie Hunter
It is astonishing, the number of people in this district who quietly work away at particular discipline, become recognised internationally, but are unknown at home. A case in point is John Hunter, now 79, who with his wife, Marie, lives and works on their property on Patons Road, Richmond. John breeds exquisite Narcissus. He started when he was 13 years old.
John is Nelson born and bred. His father was a watchmaker/jeweller. He followed in his father’s footsteps, but before, during, and after his career fixing and selling watches, he was hybridising narcissus. To making a new variety you take the pollen bearing parts of one variety, apply the pollen to the receptive parts of another, plant the resulting seeds and wait five years for the seeds to develop into a bulb capable of producing a flower. It’s simple, so simple that it has been happening with all species for as long as there has been life. Achieving a product which is an astonishingly improved, pleasing to us and doing it within decades rather than millennia requires the guiding hand of a person with an ordered mind and unwavering dedication.
It is all well and fine making a controlled cross of two varieties, hoping to produce offspring which will have the best of both. That is the fun bit; like any new project, the anticipation is an easily won pleasure. But in narcissus breeding the tangible reward is five years away.
At his peak, in the 1980s, John was making 130 crosses a year. Each was recorded, the seed taken, sown, labelled, tended and tracked until flowering. The fun bit of applying the pollen is a tiny part a much longer process. At the end of the process the vast majority of resulting flowers do not make the cut. After sixty years, John is however achieving worthwhile results from most crosses.
I visited John and Marie in 2011 to see about buying some ‘show stoppers’ as I call them. That is varieties which make you stop in your tracks, go down on your haunches, and be at a loss for words to describe their loveliness. I was not disappointed.
John’s shed was uncluttered and clean, as I imagine his mind to be. The whole property was tidy and ordered. I was curious how he was able to dedicate so much of his life to something with little financial return. He explained that they had done well, investing in the building which is now home to Creations Unlimited on Hardy Street.
John told me about his halcyon days when he was sending new varieties to Japan and his meetings with Japanese buyers who’s interests and temperament were in synch with his own. Those days ended in the 1980s when the government introduced full cost recovery for phytosanitary certification. It became too expensive to export plant material, unless the potential demand was large.
Though a healthy life style and great reasons get up each day has kept John and Marie well, there is ultimately no way of beating advancing years. Their ability to cope with the hard work has diminished. John now asks himself why he keeps on hybridising, as he mightn’t be able to do the physical work involved in tending the offspring, but he finds the allure of what he might create is irresistible.
The varieties John gave me are all late flowering, and are bravely weathering spring rain as I write.
It’s well worth a visit to Eyebright just to see them.
Sep 01, 2015 • Peter Owen