The war and the roses

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 11:20 08/12/2012

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George Sherwood revels in the beauty of life but he has also been to the brink of desolation.

The 88-year-old Taranaki rose breeder treasures the serenity of his garden of blooms. The tranquility helps him deal with haunting memories of his service with J Force in the aftermath of the A-bomb that levelled Hiroshima. Visions of victims with peeling skin have never faded.

Time spent searching for the perfect bloom give him space. It was a hobby he turned to in 1960 when he was sharemilking in Shannon in Manawatu.

"I was interested in the breeding of stock, the bettering of stock."

He had some roses so thought he would try to breed them.

Back then he didn't know anyone who bred roses so he sort of made it up as he went along - mistake after mistake until he discovered methods that worked.

Along the way he met other people with a similar interest and in 1978 a rose breeders group was formed.

His first success was in 1976 with a blush pink rose he named Nancy Steen after an Auckland woman who offered help when he was trying to source different roses in the early days.

"She had a lot to do with gathering old roses from around the countryside that the early settlers brought in. She gave me a lot of help so when we brought this rose up we named it after her."

Nancy Steen, the rose, is very healthy and has a good scent. It doesn't do well in Auckland or places further north because of the climate. But, it goes well in the South Island where is is still sold extensively, he says.

"It also does well in England. It appears in quite a few of the English rose books."

His other famous rose is also pink. It has pride of place at his front gate.

In the early 1990s, and now back home in Taranaki, Mr Sherwood gave his new rose to John Martin, of Egmont Roses, who was very impressed with it, Mr Sherwood says.

"He thought this rose was quite something. So he said, 'Can we call it Kate Sheppard?' " The centennial of women getting the vote, in 1994, was coming up, he says.

"Then it went to the trial grounds and it did quite well. Then the rose society rated it 8.1. That's pretty high. It did well from Kaitaia to the Bluff." In 2006 the rose was named Best New Zealand Raised Seedling in the Hamilton gardens.

It is a reward for all the years when there is nothing, he says.

"What I say is if you haven't got patience don't try rose breeding because there are a lot of discouragements."

Once, when he had a nice crop of seedlings come into flower, he went out in the morning and discovered the whole lot had been stolen.

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"It was very discouraging. And I've had plants dug out from the trial ground in Palmerston North."

Then there is the reality that many of the crosses he tries don't work.

"Some you see in budded form, they just don't work, you take them out and they go to the dump."

When he was farming he'd milk the cows at 5am.

"It'd be daylight half an hour before then and I'd be out covering these blooms for pollination and then about midday when it was nice and hot I'd bring the pollen in from another rose and it's just a matter of touching them and the job's done."

About May the rose seeds that are successful are planted and in August and September he has a new crop of seedlings emerging.

"From a tiny seedling I bud them on and anything I think is worthy of as trial I bud them on to stocks. Sometimes you take a tiny bud off a stem that is about two to three millimetres thick - that's not much thicker than a darning needle - I take those and put them on to a mature stock and next year I'll have them up to knee high. I don't let them flower until about Christmas."

The big growers will grow seedlings by the hundreds of thousands. He grows a couple of hundred, he says. "I don't get the chance to get a good one like the big growers. For them it's a living, for me it's a hobby."

His father and grandfather both grew roses, he says. Maybe it comes down the family. Mr Sherwood has three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren. One grandson, Levi, 21, has a more dangerous hobby than his grandfather, one that has turned into a fulltime job and has made him one of New Zealand's highest paid sportsmen. Levi is a world champion at freestyle motocross.

When Mr Sherwood was Levi's age he was heading to Japan.

He was in the last reinforcement in camp when the war finished and went up to Japan about nine months after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he says.

"It was pretty hair raising. Everything was burnt out and flat. I was through Hiroshima about 13 different times. Even where we were stationed, Shimonoseki, was burnt out and flat."

It was quite traumatic, he says.

"Especially seeing the radiation on human beings, that was horrible. I still get nightmares seeing those people.

"We never want to see it [the bombing] again. But I think it was necessary."

The Allies were going to invade Japan and a million lives could have been lost.

"It was a horrible necessity. That's the only way to describe it. It was a horrible necessity. I'd be buried there. That's what we say at our reunions. None of us would be here today, we'd have all been buried there. We'd have expected 90 to 95 per cent casualties. That is why we always say that bomb was a horrible necessity."

J Force's role was to help see the demilitarisation of Japan and the repatriation of their various armies from the Pacific, China, and Korea.

And they also helped Koreans, used as slave labour during the war, get home from Japan.

He saw "football paddocks" full of aircraft that had had charges put in them and blown up, he says.

"Big guns, nearly the length of this room, naval guns, anti-aircraft guns, had charges put in them. We were overseeing the repatriation of soldiers back to Japan, making sure they didn't bring any arms back or anything like that.

"The New Zealanders did find arms caches hidden in hillsides. There was enough there to equip a whole regiment, machine guns, field artillery, all that sort of thing."

Mr Sherwood was in Japan for about 15 months. When he came home he worked in the Post Office for a while before farming in Manawatu. He came back home to Taranaki 25 years ago.

His own roses flower in his front yard. Out the back neat rows of new seedlings and older roses grow between rows of carrots, onions and potatoes.

Tiny seedlings sit covered on the fence.

One row, yet to flower, are roses he budded in February. There are about six different varieties he is trying to prove.

"If they do no good, they get a trip to the dump."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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