OBITUARY: Bill MacKenzie

In gardens all over Britain now the last stray blooms of a yellow clematis are sprawling between the powder puffs of its silky seedheads. The flower is stiff, like lemon peel, and its four petals curve in a gentle bell round prominent reddish- purple stamens. It is named after Bill MacKenzie who spent a long lifetime in gardening, first in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, and then as curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, in west London.

MacKenzie first noticed this clematis, a much stronger, larger and more vigorous type than the ordinary species, in 1968 while he was visiting the Waterperry School of Horticulture, near Oxford. Another eminent gardener, Valerie Finnis, named it after him since it was his observant eye that had first spotted it. On 7 September 1976, she showed the clematis at a Royal Horticultural Society Show where it immediately won an Award of Merit.

MacKenzie, who lived the last 22 years of his life in Frimley Green, Surrey, was born in Scotland, where his father was head gardener at Ballimore, near Loch Fyne in Argyllshire, an estate belonging to Col John McRae Gilstrap. In his day, he used to explain, "boys either went into farming or gardening", and before he had finished school, he went to live with his grandfather who was a dairy farmer. "There was little other choice," he told Valerie Finnis, who recorded a conversation with him earlier this year. "But I had three cows to milk at five in the morning before school and another three to do each evening when I came home."

That was enough to put him off farming for life. Instead, he moved back to Ballimore where he was taken on as vegetable boy, responsible for delivering supplies from the vast kitchen garden to the Ballimore cook. He evidently found favour there, for the family suggested he abandon gardening to train instead as their butler.

But gardening had him firmly in its grasp, and when he was 24, he became a student at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden. The Twenties and Thirties were heady times to be gardening there, for George Forrest was bringing back seed of new rhododendrons and primulas from his journeys in Yunnan, in China; Frank Kingdon Ward was sending seed of meconopsis, gentians and lilies from his plant-hunting trips in China, Burma and Tibet. It was MacKenzie's job, as deputy foreman in the propagation department, to raise all these new plants from the plant hunters' seed. Nomocharis from China, omphalogramma from Sikkim and Upper Burma, and many other plants (including the first plants ever seen at the botanic garden of the famous blue Himalayan poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia) were coaxed into flower by MacKenzie's patient care. Like all the best gardeners, he was an acutely observant man.

While at the botanic garden MacKenzie developed a great love of alpine plants, particularly gentians, and bred the beautiful autumn gentian "Inverleith", which is an intense Cambridge blue, striped on the outside with darker blue. In 1933, he co-founded the Scottish Rock Garden Club which flourishes still. Last year the club presented with him with a silver salver to mark the occasion of his becoming their honorary life president.

After nearly 20 years at Edinburgh, MacKenzie accepted the prestigious post of curator at the Chelsea Physic Garden, at that stage rather a mysterious place, not open to the general public, but shut away behind high walls in the Royal Hospital Road, by the River Thames. He stayed there until he was nearly 70, his retirement coinciding with the tercentenary of the garden in 1973.

Just after the Second World War, when MacKenzie first came to London, the chairman of the committee who ran the garden for the Society of Apothecaries was the great plantsman E.A. Bowles, who gardened at Middleton House, in Enfield. "Bowles was a very wise judge of character," says the distinguished botanist and taxonomist William Stearn, who remembers MacKenzie's arrival at the Physic Garden. "MacKenzie was a first-class curator, very well trained. His sheer competence in all departments of gardening is what I remember best about him. And he was such an agreeable, genial person."

When MacKenzie came to the Physic Garden, it was suffering very much from the neglect of the war years. MacKenzie described how he used to "roll up the chickweed, like rolling up a carpet". But despite this, he found time to serve on various committees for the Royal Horticultural Society and it was they who in 1961 awarded him the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest accolade available to gardeners. You would have to dig hard to get him to tell you that, for as well as being a great plantsman, Bill MacKenzie was imbued with the rarest of all qualities, modesty.

Anna Pavord

William Gregor MacKenzie, plantsman, gardener: born Ballimore, Loch Fyne, Argyllshire 14 June 1904; married; died Frimley Green, Surrey 16 October 1995.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform