Star Gardener: Jim Jeffrey, Plantsman

The legacy of a dedicated plantsman and gardener
Jim Jeffrey, known for his cultivation and love of camellias, was an accomplished gardener of other plants, as well. Durell Godfrey

    The fog, drizzle, and downpour on Saturday morning reflected the mood of the scores who attended a funeral service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton for Jim Jeffrey. Nature shed tears for the loss of a friend and leader who touched the lives of many in the diverse pockets of our community: music, A.A., the congregation of St. Luke’s, gays and lesbians, and not least, gardening.  I can’t speak for the other groups, but in the East Hampton gardening world, Jim was patriarch.
    To the uninitiated he appeared a courtly gentleman, with more than a hint of a Southern accent even after living more than a half-century in New York and East Hampton. To his familiars, and in spite of his mild-mannered demeanor, Jim Jeffrey throbbed with passion for all things horticultural. And like true gardeners throughout the ages, nothing gave him more pleasure than sharing plants, seeds, and knowledge with others.
    Jim and I were plant pals, traveling to meetings and nurseries together. In June he arranged for us to visit a rhododendron and conifer garden in Setauket, where we lingered much longer than his health warranted. That’s what happens when people sharing the same passion for a plant get together: nonstop conversation can last for hours, if not days. The beauty of the garden, the plants, and the hospitality and enthusiasm of the owners buoyed us on the drive back to East Hampton.
    Jim was looking forward to the Conifer Society’s annual meeting in Westchester in August, which promises to be a great one. It’s that future-looking attitude that helps gardeners live to a ripe old age, if not brought down by tick-borne diseases, which is what finally got Jim. (Babesiosis, not Lyme disease.)
    Camellias, clivias, clematis, delphiniums.  These were among his most ardent plant loves. And we shouldn’t ignore Japanese maples and magnolias. While each has its challenges, in Jim’s hands growing and breeding them looked easy.
    What experienced gardener would persist in growing delphiniums, the highlight of cool English gardens, in our hot and humid climate? Thirty years ago as a young, energetic gardener, I would race out the 150 miles from my job in New Jersey to the cottage in Springs to plant delphinium seedlings the day they arrived from the nursery. Of course I had to be back at my desk at the stroke of 8 the next morning. That foolishness lasted only a couple of years.
    Jim grew them as annuals or biennials from seed, some of which came from New Zealand, I believe it was, and he was an honorary officer of the Delphinium Society. Last week, wandering through his garden, sky-blue and white delphinium spires seemed downcast in the humidity, sad he would not be back to enjoy them.  Persistence was one of his strongest characteristics.
    He hybridized clivias. This year he ordered a few grains of pollen of a particular plant and, at no small price, to be a parent in his breeding program, only to be infuriated when the plant came up barren and there was no pollen to be had. He was hopeful next year would be more productive. It takes clivia about five years from germination to flowering.       
    In early spring I brought a fellow clivia aficionado to meet him and see the treasures in his greenhouse. Afterward Jim brought out his detailed record book to show the progress of his breeding program. My friend’s eyes turned huge as saucers as he was initiated into the minutiae of plant breeding. Before leaving Jim pressed seed into our hands; it has germinated in a pot on my friend’s stoop, where the seedlings are a reminder of Jim and that afternoon.
    That is the legacy of a dedicated plantsman and gardener.
    Sustaining and passing along gardening traditions, what you could call the institutional memory of the best, is another legacy. Here, too, it was deeply imbedded in his DNA.
    A few weeks ago in his garden I admired an over-the-top grouping of frilly, double pink opium poppies. Jim’s brother David told me they originally grew in their mother’s garden. David said, sadly, they came up only as singles in his garden. Jim had that magic touch.
    One of his mother’s roses also continues to grow in the garden. David recalls she used its pink sweetheart flowers for corsages. Jim propagated them and gave young plants to friends to keep a good plant going and to honor her memory.
    He was a great champion of our own heritage rose that in 1842 was thrown overboard with a shipment of trees and shrubs to lighten the load of the French packet Louis Phillipe that was sinking off the beach in Mecox. Jim was our link to the generations of fans who have grown the ship rose, shared plants, and told its story. (“Star Gardener” column, July 2, 2009.) Happily, if gawkily, a bush grows in my garden. Another is in the garden at St. Luke’s, abutting the fence of Home, Sweet Home. Just recently Jim donated one to the revitalized Rachel’s Garden at Mulford Farm.
    Another tradition among ardent gardeners is the keeping of ornamental chickens. I’m not sure what the allure is, but they are good for eggs and great stories. The first trip to Europe a nurseryman friend took was to attend an ornamental poultry conference in the Netherlands; he practically had to be kidnapped to spend an evening with my Dutch friend who had a world-class nursery in the next town. I still can’t figure that out.
    Jim’s chickens are pretty little fluffy brown creatures with feathers that beg to be caressed if they would only stop still long enough. They must have bonded with him; they flocked around and would follow him closely as he made the rounds through the garden.
    Problem was, one of his weekend neighbors objected to the crowing of the rooster. Apparently she contacted the police, and Jim was hauled into court. His solution, for a while anyway, was to exile the rooster to the basement during the weekend, bringing it back outside after the neighbor left. In recent years “the girls” had to do without male companionship. 
    The chickens need a new home. Jim recently mentioned there were three. I saw only two last week, and in church someone said there were six. Let us know if you are interested.
    The leader and teacher in Jim may best be seen in sharing his love for camellias. Over the last few years he gathered together a group of fans, both experienced growers and those who might want to be, to meet informally in spring and fall to admire bowls of blossoms and talk about the plants. There were winter trips to the camellia house at Planting Fields Arboretum and the gardens of camellia growers, gift memberships in the American Camellia Society, visits by nurserymen who would lecture and sell plants, and special offers to buy plants from local distributors. 
    It all seemed effortless.
    These few memories of our shared horticultural life have kept him with me since I heard the news. There is a huge void, but his warm smile and serene spirit will endure. It was a life well lived.