Sunday, 16 November 2014

Margaret Owen, MBE 1930-2014

Margaret Owen, among the old fashioned daffodils she championed in Acton Burnell churchyard.
The death of Margaret Owen in late October, sad though it is, came as no great surprise: she had never really recovered from heart surgery earlier in the year. It was entirely typical of her, though, that she had insisted on postponing the operation until after the end of the snowdrop season and its culmination in her lunch party and then open day and sale at her garden, The Patch.

Margaret was a redoubtable figure in horticulture and the wider community in Shropshire, her adopted county. As her obituary in the Daily Telegraph put it, rather delicately, 'she had a flair for organising people.' The obituary is good on her horticulture, but it plays down her contributions to wider society - the campaigning on behalf of the Shrewsbury Museum, the leading of a team of seamstresses in recreating a valance for the 16th century Corbet bed, organising the flower rota in Shrewsbury Hospital and charity bridge competitions, among many other good works. It was for this community service that she was awarded the MBE in 2010.

As a gardening friend one only saw the fringes of this - for example when instructed to sign a petition to save the museum, or similar. We knew her as an indefatigable gardener, turning up all over the place, especially in the counties of the Severn valley but also regularly attending the RHS shows in London or events at Wisley. Her opinions of the RHS and some of its staff were decidedly firm, and frequently expressed at some length: eminent persons on Council were known to dread an encounter with her. This did not stop the RHS awarding her the Veitch Memorial Medal in 2012 in recognition of her contributions to horticulture, which were many.

Margaret Owen (L), with guests at her snowdrop lunch at The Patch this February.
 As with so many gardeners, she was at her best in her own garden. With her husband Godfrey, Margaret had farmed land around Acton Pigot, in Shropshire, but his early death in 1983 had led to her passing the farm to her son, and moving out of the farmhouse to live in Shrewsbury. She retained an acre or so of land from the farm, however, to create a garden: it became known as The Patch. It consisted of many beds separated by narrow paths, in which she grew a diversity of plants from shrubs and trees to small bulbs, becoming famous for her outstanding snowdrop collection, but with very many other good things represented too. She had founded the Shropshire Group of Plant Heritage and held National Plant Collections of Veratrum, Camassia, Dictamnus and hardy Nerine: an RHS trial of these is currently underway at The Patch. It is an ideal garden for testing hardiness, being an unforgivingly cold site. A charming short film of her explaining the joy of snowdrops is to be found here.

Never knowingly seen without an imposing hat or bonnet on her head, Margaret was a forthright individual and fell out with people on a regular basis, though quarrels were generally made up. Friends would be invited - or summoned - to her snowdrop lunches at The Patch. Getting there, down miles of winding lanes, was always something of an expedition, but it was worthwhile for the excellent company gathered, the interest of the garden and the lunches provided by Margaret and her helpers. The lunch itself was held in a shed, known to some as the pigsty, and despite large space heaters, it was worth being well wrapped up. Seating was so tight that it was almost impossible to move, but food and drink was passed along the tables and nobody went hungry.

Margaret making a point to Chris Sanders.

The last snowdrop lunch at The Patch - galanthophilic notables squashed into the shed for an excellent meal.
I never attended one of the open days at The Patch, but they were very popular occasions and the sale of snowdrops, lifted there and then from the garden, raised remarkable sums for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Margaret's most famous snowdrop discovery was G. elwesii 'Godfrey Owen', a form with six outer and inner segments, giving a very attractive floral shape. As a good grower it has become very popular. Others were less noteworthy, perhaps, but I like G. plicatus 'John Long', a very free-flowering clone forming dense clumps. In due course a large G. elwesii var. monostictus was named 'Margaret Owen', but it's unfortunate that she's not commemorated by something more distinctive. Her own default position was to name good plants after her late husband, so there are an Iris, Bergenia and Nerine named 'Godfrey Owen' in addition to the snowdrop.

Galanthus elwesii 'Margaret Owen'
In recent years Margaret had developed a passion for old-fashioned daffodils and in 2012 held the first of what was intended to be a series of study weekends on them. It turned out to be the only one, but everyone who attended will remember it fondly. It exemplified Margaret's passionate plantsmanship and her skill and determination at organising things: battleaxe she may have been, but we shall miss her hugely.

Margaret Owen discussing old daffodils, April 2012, with Tom Mitchell, Catherine Erskine and others.

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