Moving from being a successful dairy farmer to becoming a successful commercial orchid grower isn’t an obvious career path but it’s one that worked perfectly for Wes Ross-Taylor, who has been Patron of the Orchid Council of New Zealand since 2016.
Born in Otaki, Ross (he’s widely known as either Wes or Ross) bought his first orchid in 1948 from Parker’s Gardens while on holiday in New Plymouth. “I carefully tended those two plants but when I was called up to do my compulsory military training there was still no sight of flowers, so my father gave them away.”
He started building a collection of orchids after his marriage in 1952, primarily based around divisions from a friend’s collection and purchases from John Hannah in Papakura, one of the first orchid growers in New Zealand to produce a catalogue and who was importing seedling plants from California and Australia. Plants also came from a family whose daughter had run off to Australia – they couldn’t afford to repay the loan Ross gave them so paid him in orchids instead.
Luckily for this tyro grower he had plenty of experience nearby, including Norm Porter (Waikanae), Kathleen Black (Levin) and Ted Bartosh (Otaki). “Ted was a flower grower and president of the local horticultural society. He had a glasshouse with a heater at one end and grew all the genera in the same house – he knew what he was doing so I was lucky to learn from him. He never sold a plant, but would swap, and was a stimulating member of the Hutt Valley Orchid Circle.”
Ross was busy running a large dairy farm – he had the second-largest town milk quota for Wellington – leaving little time for his developing interest in orchids. However, after his wife Shirley became ill, Ross spent time at home caring for her until her death in 1977, and worked with his orchids “just to keep busy”.
When both sons returned from Lincoln University, Ross decided to take a step back. “My father had let me make mistakes as I took over the farm but was always behind me if I needed him – the boys came home and were ready to go so I did the same for them.”
By this time he had 1600 square feet of growing houses and was president of the Kapiti Coast orchid society, having been at the meeting that founded what was first known as the Golden Coast Orchid Society at Barbara Matthews’ home in Waikanae. Other founding members included Ted Bartosh, Kath Black and Norm Porter. Ross became president of the Golden Coast society in about 1979, and was then elected to the executive committee of the OCNZ before becoming vice-president to Tom French and then, in 1981, OCNZ president.
“The first show the Golden Coast group put on was in Coastlands at Paraparaumu and Ted Bartosh, who had a lot to do with the benching and judging dahlias, wanted no part of that because he thought it spoiled a society – just enjoy the flowers for what they are. Most of the Auckland shows were benched and you’d go into the hall and just see long lines of plants. We made displays, which to my mind are much better.” The Kapiti Coast society had a display at the first Ellerslie Flower Show organised by the OCNZ in 1980 and Ross was chairman of the committee that organised the second NZ International show in Wellington in 1985.
One piece of advice he has around shows is to have someone on the club sales table to reject suspect plants. “Quality has to be watched,” he says. “If you’re buying your first plant and it’s not in good order, you’ll never be back for another.”
Ross trained as a judge, but, he says, was never very active, although did judge at a show each in Japan and Florida. With his daughter married to an American and living in San Francisco, Ross made many visits there, meeting local orchid growers and hobbyists who introduced him to new types of orchid.
A visit from Paul Grip of the Californian Orchid Estate, which had supplied the original plants to South Pacific Orchids, changed the direction of Ross’ life. The Napier nursery, set up by Bruce Lindeman in 1967, was in trouble.
“Paul had been given shares in the company and with tears in his eyes he told me this company, which should have been successful, was nearly bankrupt. I was ready for a challenge and – after an interesting negotiation, including arriving with striking staff waving placards at the end of the drive – I bought the business and moved to Napier in 1982.”
Ross shared the services of a Dutch consultant with other New Zealand flower growers and slowly things turned around. The consultant, who became a personal friend, visited Napier every 2 years and Ross visited The Netherlands in the alternate years. “We put in a computer that gave us automatic watering, we had heaters and fans where appropriate, and added new ventilation. We built up the tissue culture laboratory, put in a new glasshouse and saw production increase.
Ross estimates he was exporting 1 million Cymbidium stems at the peak of production, mostly to Japan and Taiwan, but also to Italy and some to California. He also notes, given his introduction to staff relations, that South Pacific Orchids was a very happy workplace and many of his original staff were still there when he and partner Christine Irwin sold the business in 2004.
Christine, under the guidance of Susan Moffatt, took over the laboratory and did a lot of seed sowing and cloning for Norm Porter, Andy Easton, Barry Fraser and Russell Hutton, as well as Australian growers and Kiwi hobbyists, although the ‘short runs’ done for the last were expensive. “Alf Day was a special friend but always wanted big plant in big jars.”
His own collection of orchids was grown in amongst his commercial crop, “tucked into corners”. “The glasshouses were kept at 20C for the young Cymbidium plants, which is very suitable for many other genera.”
In the first year after he took over South Pacific Orchids, Ross had some plants awarded. “There was quite a backlash with people saying I shouldn’t be competing because I was a commercial grower. I wasn’t interested in all that so didn’t bother from then on.” His first award had come in Otaki when Tom French (foundation president of the OCNZ in 1973) saw a collection on Miltonias in Ross’ front room and said to the meeting “let’s judge”. Miltonias are still Ross’ favourite orchid.
Now, Ross can count his orchid collection on the fingers of one hand. “If you don’t do it properly, it’s a worry,” he says of their care. “I made a personal decision to leave my hobby collection at the nursery when we sold up.” The new owners closed South Pacific Orchids in about 2006 with the property recently subdivided for housing.
Upon retiring, Ross, a member of Rotary, has spent countless Tuesday mornings, until his health gave way, on the hills behind Taradale planting native trees. “The group is still going strong and now we enjoy the advantages of the work, there for all to see.”
Ross, who is now in palliative care, is patron of the Hawke’s Bay Orchid Society, while Christine is still involved in the club. “Orchids are a wonderful hobby because you can have an interest in photography, growing them outside, growing them inside. It’s got so many angles – and you meet wonderful people.”
Footnote: This interview, conducted by phone and email, was completed on May 18 with Ross joking that it could stand as his obituary. Sadly, he was right. Ross died on May 24, aged 90. The orchid community of New Zealand will miss our Patron deeply.