Rev Stanley Stringer Pelargoniums

Canon Stringer, as he is remembered in the horticultural world, was the former vicar of Occold. A number of us were aware that he produced garden geraniums (pelargoniums) but only a few of the village elders were aware of his major contribution to this field. I was amazed to find his name and pictures of plants (cultivars) on website throughout Europe, North America and Australia. To find Canadians and Americans arguing about the correct naming of some of his cultivars and an Australian lady clearly trying to copy his most famous ‘Deacon’ range was something of a shock. At least eighty [80] new pelargonium cultivars were developed in a greenhouse at The Vicarage.

Stanley P. Stringer was born in 1911 but his fame as a leading garden plant hybridist didn’t begin until 1964 when his first pelargonium was introduced. This was the first of his many miniatures. It had single (5 petal) salmon flowers and dark leaves and he named it ‘Alde’.

This was followed by several double (10 petal) miniatures, including in 1966/7 a pelargonium with scarlet flowers and dark leaves named ‘Rigal’, one with a pale violet-pink flowers with white centres named Denebola and an important miniature called ‘Orion’ which was smothered in double orange flowers. Orion was important as a garden plant in its own right, but also because, when crossed with the ivy leafed pelargonium ‘Blue Peter’, it became the basis of the renowned ‘Deacon’ subgroup.

The Deacons were the result of the unexpected success of crossing zonal double miniatures with ivy leafed pelargoniums. The 27 different named Deacons (not 24 as quoted in most references) were the product of Stanley Stringers expertise and scientific rigour in teasing out the best characteristics of the very different parent plants. From start to finish the ‘Deacon’ project took twelve to thirteen years to complete.

The zonal pelargoniums are classified as ‘Zonal’ (regular sized and shaped pelargoniums known as ‘bedding geraniums’ or just ‘geraniums’), ‘Dwarfs’ and ‘Miniatures’. The distinctions do not necessarily coincide with their genetic make up but merely their ability to be grown to the arbitrary rules for geranium show classification which limit the size of pots and height to which they may be grown; miniatures being smaller than Dwarfs. The Deacons are double zonal pelargoniums and are mostly classified as Dwarf but only just! Some shows treat the Deacons as a class of their own and allow a somewhat larger pot.

The first Deacons were released in 1969/70 and included Deacon Bonanza, Deacon Coral Reef, Deacon Fireball, Deacon Lilac Mist, Deacon Mandarin and Deacon Romance. They were introduced to the wider public at the 1970 Chelsea Flower Show by Henry Bagus of Wyck Hill Nurseries.

Probably the greatest subsequent flower show winner was among the first tranche of Deacons was Deacon Lilac Mist. This is a Dwarf Zonal Pelargonium with prolific double flowers of pale pink merging into lilac which deepen with age.

The Deacons continued to be introduced throughout the seventies with one hiccup when Wyck Hill Nurseries ceased trading but other nurseries then took up his pelargoniums. He decided to bring the Deacons to an end in 1979-80 but ‘Deacon Type’ plants have continued to be produced by other breeders.

He had never completely given up on the more traditional types of pelargoniums particularly the miniatures. At the time that the Deacon were being introduced he had released Sun Rocket the first of his fancy leaved varieties. It seems likely that most of his fancy leafed varieties are P. Zonal crosses with P.Fruterum. He was also successful with varieties with beautifully zoned or blotched golden leaves such as Occold Embers, Occold Volcano, and probably most successful of all Occold Shield. Occold Shield is one of the few Stringer Pelargoniums which you may find in gardens around the Occold area and has a bronzy gold leaf with a distinctive brown zone in the centre and semi-double orange-red flowers.

There are eight pelargoniums carrying this village’s name: Occold Lagoon, Occold Orange Tip, Occold Profusion, Occold Ruby, Occold Shield, Occold Surprise, Occold Tangerine and Occold Volcano. They all appear to be commercially available but not all in the UK.

In the last years after he had retired to Debenham he returned to miniatures and to developing speckled flower pelargoniums such as Gemma and Magda.

The last Stringer cultivar was a miniature called Golden Chalice (sometimes called Sussex Chalice or Sussex Chance) and a few gardeners seem to think that he saved the best to last with its variegated foliage of olive green and cream with salmon flowers that are often spotted with scarlet.

It struck me, whilst researching his life and times, that Canon Stanley Stringer had a lot in common with the founder of genetics Abbott Gregor Mendel. It appears that both were men of the cloth who shut out the problems of the world by immersing themselves in a seemingly endless quest involving incredibly complex and tortuous pursuit of perfection require in plant breeding.

I gather that the Rev Stringers greenhouse was rarely a spectacle of blooms, ladies stockings were often required over the plants to stop unwanted pollination in this hybridising laboratory. On one occasion he went to read his Sunday sermon to find out that he had brought his pelargonium list into church by mistake.

Both men could appear to be intransigent, as they didn’t compromise their principles easily; for the Rev Stringer it included his total opposition to all gambling. But neither was filled with a sense of self importance. When the Rev Stringer lost his nursery outlet he had to be persuaded by Fred Mepham that other nurseries were happy to take on his new introductions. And he is remembered kindly by former Occold School pupils for allowing them to play cricket on his lawn. Like his greenhouse his garden was clearly a means to a greater end rather than an end in itself.

For both these clerical boffins the full acknowledgement of their considerable achievement came from abroad and largely after their life time.  

Researched by Andy Andrews for the Boffins Fayre

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