Vale Elwyn Swane (1935-2024)

HMAA life member, Elwyn Swane, died on Monday, April 8 aged 88. Elwyn was the youngest of the Swane siblings Valerie, Ben and Geoff, who ran Swane’s Nursery at Dural and Narromine in New South Wales. The nursery was established in 1919 by Elwyn’s father, Ted Swane, and his brother Harold.

She is survived by her sons David and Michael Collins, grandsons Bryce, Jon and Thomas Collins, and her nieces and nephews.

Although it is sad to hear of Elwyn’s death, her down-to-earth nature and sense of humour has reached out via her death notice in The Sydney Morning Herald (April 10), which states: “Grateful to have lived her life among green and growing things, mum “popped her clogs” as she used to say and has QUIETLY GONE TO SEED!”.

Elwyn has been privately cremated. At her request, her ashes will be scattered in the garden of her friend Keith Kirsten in South Africa.

Tributes to Elwyn Swane

(24/11/35 – 8/4/24)

Elwyn’s friend and colleague, Keith Kirsten, has put together this lovely tribute, which he has sent from his home in South Africa. Following Keith’s moving words are contibutions remembering Elwyn from her niece Elizabeth Swane and colleagues Don Burke and Graham Ross along with a ‘potted’ history of the Swane family.

Keith Kirsten, Keith Kirsten International Horticulture Thinking of Elwyn brings to mind the vibrancy of our shared adventures, with laughter, discovery, and the warmth of camaraderie. My friendship with Elwyn grew from meeting her big sister Valerie. That story begins in days of the late 1970s, amid my tenure as President of SANA (South African Nursery Association). Tales of Valerie’s botanical prowess spun by fellow South African nurserymen (and women!) fresh from a visit to Australian soil and of all that the Aussie nursery industry were doing based on methods gleaned from California cemented our enduring friendship. It was 1983 when Valerie graced us with her wisdom. That first successful visit was followed by another in 1985. Each encounter deepened the roots of our bond.

Valerie Swane OBE, whose spirit illuminated our paths in the nursery industry in South Africa, came here to share her experiences of Greening of Australia, which led to the formation of Greening of South Africa and subsequently Food and Trees for Africa. She also brought knowledge of the University of California Growing System, introduced us to nursery trade days, Aussie rose-growing techniques, the great commentators Ian Baldwin and John Stanley and so, so much more.

Valerie was our second international speaker for the South African nursery industry. The first was Bruce Usrey of the Monrovia Nursery Company in 1982. Valerie won the hearts of many of our members and returned to our Cape Town Convention in 1985.

One afternoon, in the verdant embrace of Valerie and the Swanes’ abode in Dural I had the pleasure of meeting Elwyn, who became my guide and confidante. From that moment, our friendship blossomed, buoyed by shared passions and a mutual love for gardens and exploration.

Elwyn’s upbringing in a resilient family instilled in her a sense of adventure matched only by her unwavering spirit. Following the sale of the family business, she embarked on a new chapter, crafting a tranquil haven in Beecroft before retiring to the coastal serenity of Forster, New South Wales, where she nurtured a garden that flourished as did our friendship.

Our travels together included the lush gardens of England, the Chelsea Flower Show and took us through Italy with the ancient wonders of Rome and Florence. But it was in the heart of South Africa that Elwyn truly found her rhythm, whether across the rugged terrain of the Cape Winelands and wildflowers up the west coast or the untamed wilderness of the Greater Kruger Park, and majestic Drakensberg Mountains.

Her laughter, reminiscent of Valerie’s, echoed through the corridors as we explored the streets of Vienna including a chance Vivaldi concert in an old church and the sun-drenched plains of the Botswana wilderness. Picnicking on a small island of the mighty Zambezi River, we shared moments that will forever remain etched in my memory.

Elwyn had a special sense of humour and like Valerie, even though a very different person, she had that typical down to earth humour that we all love. It was so straightforward and absolutely obvious that I would be cracking up with laughter.

She could advise on many issues in life with experience on her side and was a great person to bounce a problem off. You would get a straight no-nonsense answer. We spoke regularly by letter or phone discussing horticulture, travel, health, growing older and often the state of the nations, global warming, and climate change as well.

In Elwyn, I found not just a friend, but a kindred spirit whose zest for life and love for adventure enriched my own journey in ways words cannot express. Our distant shores made no difference to our monthly if not weekly discussions on all matters of life and work nor the memories we created together that will never be forgotten. We always amused ourselves when life was getting us down with the exclamation: “If all else fails we need only remember that we will always have Venice.”

Elwyn loved her dogs and cared for them I think better than herself. To friends and family alike she could be generous to a fault and had a warm affection for her extended family particularly her nieces, nephews and of course grandchildren. My last visit to Elwyn was at her home in Forster in October not long after her move there where she lived happily with family nearby.

Written in loving memory of a cherished friend gardener and fellow traveller, a resilient soul who journeyed through life with courage.

Elizabeth Swane Trotter I remember when Elwyn returned to work in the nursery after her divorce and was living at Dural next door to the nursery (as did Ben and Suzanne and Ben’s parents, my grandparents).

I was doing my apprenticeship at the time. Valerie sent Elwyn and me to the University of New England at Armidale in New South Wales to attend a plant issue culture workshop.  Elwyn drove her V12 navy blue Jaguar at speed up the New England Highway with a cassette of Boz Scaggs playing at full volume. When I commented we might get caught by the police for speeding she laughed and said they won’t be able to catch me!

She lived her life with vigour and always with plants. Some of Elwyn’s gifted plant treasures live on in my garden, her white paint brush lily is flowering in her honour right now. It is growing alongside Valerie’s beautiful hybrid clivia, Ben’s maples and his rhapis palms.

My aunts Valerie and Elwyn, my uncle Geoff and ‘The Legend”, my father Ben, fostered in me and all our family, a wonderful love of all things growing and the people who tend to those plants.

Don Burke OAM With the passing of Elwyn, we are witnessing the end of a pivotal era for the horticultural industry in Australia. No one had the impact on our industry that the four Swane siblings did. They introduced modern professional practice to horticulture. Their insistence on perfection in both plant production and retail excellence forced the industry to follow.

I had the privilege of being close to Ben, Valerie and Elwyn in particular. Elwyn was a ‘Plant Person’ to the end. She was active on social media discussing plant issues with me until a few months ago. The Swane siblings were wonderful and unforgettable people. I will miss them all!

Graham Ross Elwyn reluctantly stepped in to fill the shoes left when her iconic sister Valerie died. Elwyn filled them and some. She changed the nursery industry and home gardens by writing a booklet called Grow Me Instead that was published by the Nursery and Garden Industry NSW and ACT. It pointed out the weedy plants being sold and that gardeners were growing, suggesting environmentally friendly alternatives. It was a brilliant turning point in 200 years of Australian gardening.

With Keith Kirsten, Elwyn and I greatly enjoyed a Pimms for more than a decade and a half at the Chelsea Flower Show. Such fun times. Elwyn has left this earthly garden for an even better one but blazed a glorious trail while she was here.

A quick history of the Swane family

Swane’s Nursery was begun by Ted Swane (Elwyn’s father) and his brother Tim in 1919 after returning from the first world war in 1917, when it was known as Swane Bros. Nursery. Ted and his wife Gwen had five children, four of whom worked in the nursery. They were Valerie, who was the eldest, then Ben (Edgar Norman), Geoffrey and Elwyn. Ben married Suzanne and they had four children, who also followed horticulture as a career and worked in the nursery until its sale in 2000. Marianne is now retired and lives near Forster on the NSW north coast. Elizabeth, who is an HMAA member, became a magazine writer, radio talkback presenter and garden tour leader after leaving Swane’s. Of their two sons, Robert now runs his own nursery with his wife Ruby at Sackville (near the Hawkesbury River) while Philip works in fire safety in large buildings. Geoffrey married Eva and went to Narromine in the Central West of New South Wales to grow roses for Swane’s. He and Eva had three boys. Richard worked in the nursery then became a diesel mechanic. Glenn trained as landscape architect then retrained as accountant and is now doing his masters and lives in Melbourne. Mark is a fireman who also runs his own large-scale garden maintenance business. Elwyn was married and had two sons. David Collins who has son Thomas, an arborist, lives in Boomerang Beach near Forster. Michael Collins has two sons, Jon who lives in Melbourne (undertaking environmental studies) and Bryce, who lives in Sydney.

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