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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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A treasure remembered

It has been a sad week, with the passing of Wairarapa garden writing and painting icon Kerry Carman.

She will be remembered by a generation of gardeners for her endearing book “Portrait of a Garden”, written after a serious spinal injury cut short her teaching career and confined her to bed for the next few years.

Stuck in her bed, she used her time to carefully write and illustrate diaries about her garden – its flowers, but also its other natural life, and the flow of her family life. The book was a huge hit.

Kerry Rose Carman and I were almost related. Her husband Len was the brother of one my uncles-by-marriage, but I first got to meet Kerry when I was working in a garden centre in Masterton. It quickly became obvious that we shared a love of unusual plants and the garden in general, and I started visiting Wylde Green, her garden in Masterton.

Although not a large garden, it was filled to the brim with all sorts of precious plants, many of which I had read about but never seen. There were dogwoods, old roses, hellebores in profusion, violets running wild everywhere and always special bulbs dotted about.

Alongside her front door stood a magnificent bonsai wisteria, the first I had ever seen. This vigorous climber, usually rapacious in its growth, was kept in check by assiduous trimming, and each spring, loose racemes of mauve flowers would cascade down to the glazed pot it sat in.

Kerry was a proud galanthophile – a lover of snowdrops. She had a collection of many different species and forms which she carefully cultivated, sometimes in the garden but also in the many pots she grew.

She had a special affection for bulbous plants and grew a wide range of different types – lots of daffodils, of course, but also iris and gladioli. She loved the North American trilliums, especially the darker-coloured ones, and the diminutive cyclamen species from Europe.

She also treasured violets, saying she had a magic one, a plant that threw many different coloured children around her garden. These were carefully appraised and released onto the nursery market worldwide after a deal with an international nursery.

She adored anything that was highly scented. She grew several different daphne – I especially remember an aged Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ with its dark green leaves edged with gold. She grew the wonderfully fragrant sweet box, Sarcococca, which has a divine scent during the winter.

I recall once going home to tell the Head Gardener that I had been in Kerry’s bath, as it was the only way I could get to see and smell the special gardenia she had growing in a bed on the western side of the house. What a wonderful scent!

She loved the various aberrant and historic members of the polyanthus family – the curious hose-in-hose forms, with one flower sitting atop another, and the “jack-in-the-greens” with a huge green calyx at the base of the flower.

We shared a love of auriculas, and she looked forward to seeing the double forms I was breeding. I can still remember her squeal of delight when I showed her a creamy-green variety I raised. Because it was green and the petals were shaped like a rose, I told her we would call it “Kerry Rose”, and we both grew it for many years before it finally died out for us both.

Kerry’s love for plants and research knew no bounds. She loved nothing more than to find an old variety of plant that she could not immediately identify. She would hunt through books and catalogues until she could name it with certainty.

A visit to her garden always involved a long walk around each bed, with Kerry taking clippings to bring home for cuttings or flowers for the house. Her long period as a columnist for the Listener allowed many readers nationwide to get a glimpse into her garden, and she made many lifelong friends through her writing. Many of these gardeners delighted in sharing their treasures with her.

Kerry knew hardship and sadness. Her beloved Len died in his mid-50s, and her elder son Michael died from a rare immune disease, which also claimed the life of my daughter. After Lavinia died, I came home one day to find a potted plant and a note at my back door. The note, with a lovely line drawing of a snowdrop, was from Kerry, and the plant was a very rare double snowdrop called ‘Lavinia’.

Kerry had many special talents – she was an extraordinary botanical artist, capturing the essence of the flowers she painted. She was a doll collector with an impressive collection. She wrote four garden books, and numerous columns and articles for a variety of publications. She was a noted plantswoman.

But she was more than just that. Generous, she was always happy to share her knowledge and her skills. Positive, she always seemed able to see the plants among the weeds, both literally and metaphorically. Animated, she giggled and smiled mischievously, and her eyes sparkled.

She was a treasure.

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