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Frederick Claude Stern (1884-1967)

Stapf’s association with the Royal Horticultural Society and his unique standing as a botanical authority on Paeonia led Frederick Claude Stern (1884-1967), a wealthy merchant banker and former army officer with a celebrated garden, to propose that they should produce a joint work, Stapf to contribute a taxonomic revision, Stern the horticultural notes summarizing his experience in growing peonies from 1919 onwards in his chalk garden at Highdown, near Worthing, Sussex. England. Stern had found that they throve there and he enthusiastically acquired as many species as possible for cultivation and study. His article on “Paeony species” in Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London 56: 71-77 (1931) begins:

"I intend to talk about Paeony species and I intend to talk about them from a gardener's point of view. I am not a botanist and therefore I can only describe them as a gardener and say how they grow in my own garden. For many years past I have raised all the Paeony species I could get hold of from seed; but I find the naming of them, especially some of the European ones, exceedingly difficult, and I also find that the botanists differ as to the correct naming of some of them ... Perhaps this discussion will encourage the botanist to produce a scientific monograph on this genus which is up to date and easy for the amateur gardener to understand."

He employed the celebrated botanical artist Lilian Snelling (1879-1972) to paint them from life for this book. Collaboration between Stapf the scholar and Stern the gardener would have been ideal. Stapfs sudden death on 3 August 1933 at Innsbruck while on holiday there temporarily ruined Stern's plan. Having Lilian Snelling's beautiful paintings on hand he approached me to prepare the botanical text which would enable them to be published, and I agreed. Taking Stapfs herbarium determinations as a basis I worked out the synonymy of the taxa he had recognized and studied the herbarium material at Kew, the British Museum, Edinburgh, Prague, Vienna and Goteborg as well as many living plants. I had assumed Stern wanted me to do the work that Stapf would have done. I found indeed that he wanted me to do this but to be regarded as his botanical servant. He disliked changes in nomenclature that I proposed, including a new name. P. clusii, for P. cretica Tausch non Sabine, and the description of the Rhodes peony (P. rhodia) as a species distinct from P. arietina, with which he considered it conspecific, and these disagreements, together with our various other commitments, ended our co-operation. Luckily Stern had the supreme good fortune to obtain the help of J. Robert Sealy of the Kew Herbarium who prepared a key to the genus, drew up the descriptions, searched the literature and listed the specimens in the Kew Herbarium. In 1946 the Royal Horticultural Society published Stern's fine volume A Study of the Genus Paeonia, with illustrations by Lilian Snelling and Stella Ross-Craig (Mrs J.R. Sealy). For this work I had provided much of the information in the chapter IV ‘History of Paeonia literature’ and Appendix II, ‘Bibliography’. Maps on pages 18, 20, 22, 30 and 32 were prepared by George Sidney Holland and me. From two ladies came £ 1000 towards the cost of publication. But for Stern's enthusiastic interest in the genus Paeonia none of us would probably have given it the same attention. A Study of the Genus Paeonia stands as a splendid and very useful monument to Stern's interest in peonies over so many years; it is fitting that a peony species, P. sterniana Fletcher (1959), also commemorates him.

From the book:Peonies of Greece William T. Stearn and Peter H. Davis