Journal Number 112
May 2009


By Val Smith

James Bruce Irwin and Pterostylis irwinii

Bruce Irwin's love affair with New Zealand orchids began in his birthplace, Wanganui, where his
father Samuel Irwin from Ballyboley, County Antrim, Ireland, was for many years a men's outfitter;
his mother Margaret (nee Howie) was born in Invercargill.

During his secondary school years at Wanganui Technical College Bruce had two unusual friends -
unusual because of their interest in native plants - and on weekends the three boys would bike and
walk miles in the vicinity, looking for new plants, including orchids.

In 1939, at seventeen, Bruce joined the Lands and Survey Department in New Plymouth as a survey
draughtsman. Close by was Egmont National Park, to explore with new friends Sid Gibson and his
son Owen, and more orchids to find and draw.

He was enthused. But war intervened, and despite life in army camps, military mapping back with
Lands and Survey, pilot training with the RNZAF, and a year in Japan with J-Force, he pursued his
orchid interests whenever possible. Much of his work with Owen Gibson on Mt Taranaki, and most
of his orchid watercolours were done during or soon after the Second World War.

Later, when he was working in the Cartographic Branch of Lands and Survey in Wellington, botanist
Lucy Moore happened to see his paintings, and was impressed. Irwin left the department in 1962
when he bought a run-down holiday camp in Marlborough Sounds. Dr Moore visited him there,
and a long and productive collaboration began, starting with work for Volume II of the Flora of
New Zealand (1970) and culminating in The Oxford Book of New Zealand Plants (1978).

By then Irwin was working part-time at the Art Department of the Otago Medical School, and had
long been doing detailed large-scale pencil drawings, rather than watercolours, considering them
of greater botanical value. Lucy Moore gave him lessons in botany, and for 11½ years all his spare
time was spent on illustrations for the Oxford book. He "retired" to Tauranga to grow orchids.

Bruce Irwin continues to observe orchids in the field, and study, draw and write about them.
His work is prolific and his skills are in constant demand. He made the drawings for Clarkson's
Vegetation of Egmont National Park (1986), and makes a major contribution to publications of
the New Zealand Native Orchid Group, of which he is a life member - most recently Brian Tyler's
beautiful Bruce Irwin's drawings of New Zealand orchids (2007).

He has received several botanical awards, and two species of Pterostylis have been named for him.
He planted and cares for orchids at Te Puna Quarry Park, and corresponds with friends and fellow

Bruce has a quiet and unassuming manner with a dry sense of humour; and shares his knowledge
without being obtrusive. In 2006, this octogenarian admitted that perhaps it is time he took an interest
in something other than orchids - but what?


Pterostylis irwinii - Greenhood

Pterostylis: "winged column"; irwinii: after JB Irwin, orchid enthusiast, who discovered it at Erua.

One of the so-called grass-leaved orchids, Pterostylis irwinii is a large, slender-leaved plant.

The flowers appear from November to December.

The tepal ends are sometimes reddish; the lateral sepals are incurved and lean forward,
forming an inward turning jug spout at the sinus; the labellum is dark and tapered.

P. irwinii grows in light scrub or bush; until 1998 it had been found in only one site near Ruapehu,
but has since been discovered in Northwest Nelson.

Pterostylis irwinii




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