Story: McPherson, James Anderson

Page 1 - McPherson, James Anderson

McPherson, James Anderson

1900–1980

Horticulturist, horticultural administrator and writer

This biography was written by Brian Parkinson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

One of New Zealand’s most eminent horticulturists, James Anderson McPherson devoted his life to the development of public gardens throughout the country. He was born at Dunedin on 3 June 1900, the son of John McPherson, a carpenter, and his Scottish-born wife, Elizabeth Bain Munro. James was educated at Albany Street School and King Edward Technical College, Dunedin. He became a trainee at the city’s Botanic Gardens and was then accepted for training at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London. While there McPherson undertook specialist classes in plant breeding at the Chelsea Polytechnic, as well as other studies at the Rothamstead Experimental Station. He carried out further research in Scotland and France; in Paris he won the diploma of the Société nationale d’horticulture de France for his work reclassifying their New Zealand plants, a subject in which he maintained a lifelong interest.

On returning to Dunedin in 1925, McPherson brought with him a number of exotic trees including the large-leafed poplar and the twisted willow, both of which are now well established in New Zealand. On 4 May that year he married Mabel Sutherland at Hanover Street Baptist Church, Dunedin; she was to die of pregnancy complications five months later. By this time James had taken up the position of forester and head gardener with the Westport Coal Company at Granity in Westland. There he met Margaret Jane McEwan, whom he married at Dunedin on 21 December 1927; the couple were to have three sons.

By 1927 McPherson had moved to Invercargill to take up an appointment as the superintendent of parks and reserves. While there he supervised several major developments in the gardens. In 1933, when he transferred to Christchurch, the citizens of Invercargill presented him with an illuminated address in appreciation of his work. In Christchurch, McPherson was initially curator and later director of the Botanic Gardens. He was responsible for the development of the Cockayne Memorial Garden as well as for the mass planting of daffodils – now very much a feature of spring in Hagley Park.

In 1943 McPherson was sent to Tonga to supervise a project to produce fresh fruit and vegetables for New Zealand military personnel serving in the Pacific. On his return to Christchurch the following year he established a training course for horticulturists at the Botanic Gardens, but lack of government funding prevented a school of horticulture being established. His ideas were developed into university courses at the Canterbury and Massey agricultural colleges, and subsequently expanded to full degree programmes.

In 1945 McPherson took up the position of superintendent of parks and reserves at Auckland, a position he was to hold for 19 years. He arrived in Auckland to find many of the parklands in a poor state from being used as encampments by New Zealand and American military forces during the Second World War. His first task was to restore these to their former condition. During the 1960s and 1970s he became a driving force behind obtaining and developing the land at Manurewa which became the Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens (opened in 1982).

McPherson was a member of the examining board of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture for almost three decades and in 1953 was made an associate of honour. He was appointed government representative on the Auckland Centennial Memorial Park Board and the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Board, and in 1964 he served as president of the New Zealand Volunteer Coast Guard Service.

Throughout his career James McPherson strove to pass on his horticultural expertise to the public. He published the fourth edition of Vegetable growing in New Zealand in 1936 and Whitcombe’s complete New Zealand gardener in 1943; the latter is regarded as one of the classic books on the subject and has had several reprints. In 1968 he produced The Star guide to New Zealand gardening (republished as Brett’s guide to New Zealand gardening the following year). He became a television gardener in 1966 with a weekly programme, ‘Gardening Quarter’. He also gave radio talks and after his retirement published a regular column in the New Zealand Herald. He died at Auckland on 18 February 1980, survived by his sons. Margaret had died 14 years earlier.