Stewart MBE VMH
A tribute to a true English Lady
Joyce Stewart was the eldest of five children
and grew up near Salisbury in England. Her passion for plants, especially orchids, started as a child during
regular family walks in the Wiltshire countryside on Sunday afternoons. She recalled seeing Early Purple
Orchids amongst the blue-bells and Bee Orchids flowering with the cowslips. Her early interest in wild flowers
was encouraged by her parents; she wanted to learn the plants' names and where they grew. The first books she
possessed were about plants and she received a copy of Bentham and Hooker's Genera Plantarum that
inspired her quest to understand plant systematics. As a schoolgirl Joyce recalled meeting Victor Summerhayes
when he came to Wiltshire from Kew to see some Helleborines that she thought were different; she told him
categorically that she wanted to be a botanist when she grew up!
While studying Botany at Reading University in the 1950s the habit of botanical excursions on Sundays continued.
Led by Professor Harris she cycled out to look for plants, building on her passion for botanical fieldwork. She met
her future husband, Donald, as a fellow student at Reading where he studied zoology. He was to become a wildlife
biologist, first working in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia).
Joyce's first teaching job took her to Switzerland to discover new flowers but two weeks after her wedding in 1960
the couple moved to Kenya where Don had set up a research unit for the Game Department. There she worked in the
Coryndon Museum herbarium. This posting gave her an opportunity to travel around the country and discover the
extraordinary variety of the African flora. Joyce recalled being awestruck by a fine flowering specimen of
Aerangis thomsonii that she came face-to-face with on a trout fishing trip. This was the beginning of
her fascination with the orchids of Africa and a lifelong hobby of growing orchids.
In May 1964 Joyce joined the Kenya Orchid Society when her life-long friend Heather Campbell discovered that they
would receive six free orchids if they joined the Society! Her interest in orchids then blossomed and she became
secretary of the KOS two years later. She steadily amassed a fine orchid collection and was inspired to make a
career in orchids.
Encouraged by John Blowers, then editor of The Orchid Review, she started to write up some of her research
with her first article about a recent adventurous trip to the Comoro Islands appearing in 1968. This was followed
two years later by her first book, Orchids of Tropical Africa (W. H. Allen, London, 1970), illustrated
with Bob Campbell's photographs. Another of her early orchid publications was the contribution of the orchid
section of Andrew and Shirley Agnew's Upland Kenya Wild Flowers (Oxford University Press, 1974; 2nd ed.
East African Natural History Society, 1994). A number of other orchid books followed including Orchids of
Africa (HM, Boston, 1981), with beautiful paintings by Esmé Hennessy, and Wild Orchids of Southern
Africa with Ted Schelpe, Peter Linder, and Tony Hall (Macmillan South Africa, 1982). Joyce developed a
great expertise in the genus Aerangis and her monographs in Kew Bulletin and the AOS
Bulletin are still the standard reference for the genus. These articles also brought her in contact with
Isobyl la Croix with whom she became a life-long correspondent and friend; they jointly described two
horticulturally important Aerangis from Malawi, A. distincta and A. splendida. For
five years she was editor of the South African Orchid Journal and, supervised by Ted Schelpe, became a
qualified judge of the South African Orchid Council.
In 1972 Don was offered a senior post in the South African Wildlife Service in Natal where, inter alia, he
was in charge of the Hluhluwe National Park and its famous white rhinos. Joyce taught botany at the University of
Natal in Pietermaritzburg, at the same time completing an M.Phil.
In 1975 she attended her first World Orchid Conference in Frankfurt. From then she attended all subsequent WOC's
and was closely involved with the 1981 Conference in Durban, for which she co-edited the Proceedings. Her special
involvement in World Orchid Conferences culminated in the 1993 WOC, Glasgow, when she was Chairman of the
In 1982 Joyce and Don 'retired' to England and settled in Dorset with a large glasshouse full of orchids and half
an acre smallholding. The plan was to grow things and write but she soon became active in British orchid circles:
she joined the Bournemouth Orchid Society and in 1984 was invited to join the RHS Orchid Committee and remained a
very active and committed member of this august body. She was immensely proud of the two awards she received from
the committee for Euryangis Victoria Nile 'Lisa' AM/RHS and Sphyrarhynchus
schliebenii 'Heather' BC/RHS.
In 1985 Joyce returned to professional botany and became the first 'Sainsbury Orchid Fellow' at the Royal Botanic
Gardens Kew. This gave her the opportunity to continue research and travel to orchid meetings throughout the world.
Her main roles were to run the Sainsbury Endangered Orchid Project, co-edit the Orchid Research
Newsletter, and promote orchid cultivation and research at Kew. One of the consequences was the
publication of Orchids at Kew (RBG Kew, 1992) that she compiled and edited. Joyce was also an active
member of IUCN's (The World Conservation Union) Species Survival Commission's Orchid Specialist group. The post
also offered an opportunity to become involved in the Sainsbury Orchid Conservation project, raising European
orchids from seed.
In 1994 Joyce was awarded the Gold Veitch Memorial Medal from the RHS, not just for her role in making the Glasgow
WOC such a success, but also for her work on the International Orchid Commission, its remit including nomenclatural
matters, registration of orchid hybrids, and orchid conservation. The same year she was appointed as one of the
five World Orchid Conference Trustees and served as its President from 1999 to 2005. The Trust works with
organizers and supports them in preparing and running each triennial World Orchid Conference and Show.
In 1998 Joyce became one of the 61 holders of the Victoria Medal of Honour, the RHS's premier award, to add to her
Honorary Fellowship of the Society. Joyce was also President of the British Orchid Council and became a BOC judge.
Judging standards and quality of judging were of great importance to her and she supported this through her work on
the BOC judging sub-committee. She was a dedicated RHS judge and participated and chaired a great number of judging
panels at the Chelsea Flower Show, Hampton Court, Tatton Park, etc. She also was one of the most respected judging
moderators, her observation and diplomatic skills were always impressive to watch. She also took a great interest
in the European Orchid Council of which she was an honorary member.
For many years Joyce was vice-chairman and member of the RHS Advisory Sub-Committee on Orchid Hybrid registration,
the work of which underpins orchid hybridizing to this day and she skilfully helped this Committee through some
controversial times. She became a consultant to The Orchid Review and joined its editorial panel,
always freely giving her advice and religiously proof-reading hundreds of issues of the journal before it went to
In 1995 she moved from Kew to the RHS where she joined the staff as Director of Horticulture. This post included
responsibility for the Society's gardens as well as its scientific, advisory services, plant trials, and education
work. Joyce often joked that after her retirement in 2003, her post had been filled by three people, each
undertaking part of her old job. During her time at the RHS she also found time to complete a book on the
Orchids of Kenya (St Paul's Bibliographies, Winchester, 1996); her succinct text and photographs by Bob
Campbell contributed much to making the orchids of the region more widely known.
Joyce's work for the RHS and for horticulture was recognised in 2003 by an MBE for 'services to Horticultural
Science and Botanical Education'.
She was awarded numerous other honours throughout her career, some of the most prestigious being Fellowship of the
Linnean Society, the AOS Gold Medal of Achievement, a Gold Medal from the South African Orchid Council, and
Honorary membership of the D.O.G. She was also very proud of the beautiful Spathoglottis Joyce Stewart
that was named for her by the Singapore Botanic Garden.
After her retirement Joyce devoted her time to voluntary activities for the RHS, the WOC Trust and others.
Work on African Orchids culminated in the publication of Angraecoid Orchids with Johan Hermans and Bob
Campbell (Timber Press, Oregon, 2006). The publisher originally asked for a simple revision of Hillerman's 1980's
work but after discussion with her co-authors she negotiated hard and was virtually given carte
blanche to produce a thorough and lavishly illustrated book. It is a fitting tribute to a life devoted to
the orchids that inspired her when she first went out to Kenya as a young and newly married woman.
Joyce's literary skills were not confined to African orchids; other works included The RHS Manual of
Orchids with Mark Griffiths (Timber Press, Oregon, 1995), popular orchid guides for the RHS, An
Introduction to Dendrobiums with Sybelle Schelpe (Orchid Sundries, Dorset, 1990), and a notable book on
The Orchid Paintings of Franz Bauer, co-authored with William Stearn and Julia MacKenzie (The Herbert Press
and Natural History Museum, London, 1993).
There is not much doubt that she was one of the best lecturers around; her talks were always informative, clear and
very well presented; they inspired many.
Joyce was a formidable lady; she did not suffer fools gladly, especially those who were less than sincere. She had
a remarkable knack of putting someone in their place, just by a well-placed stare or a few poignant words (they
often deserved it!). As a true English Lady she always kept her composure. Her generosity was boundless, both in
friendly advice and encouragement and always without fuss or a hidden agenda. Joyce gave large amounts of her time
and finance to causes that she believed in, including the WOC Trust for which she sponsored the website and other
Joyce enjoyed some of the finer things in life; a quiet dinner with friends at her beloved Sloane Club or even a
cold beer and a good chat in the Paris Café after a long day's work in the herbarium. Rather appropriately, her
last trip abroad was to South Africa where she met up with many of her old friends and was positive in encouraging
their work towards the 21st World Orchid Conference in 2014.
Joyce will be sorely missed in horticultural circles. She was well known to many orchid lovers for her lectures on
various aspects of the orchid world. She was the focus and dynamo for many organizations and groups, ranging from
local orchid societies to world events, and an energetic and very well-connected driving force wherever she
Joyce passed away on the 7th of January 2011 after a short illness. She will be fondly remembered throughout the
world as a true English Lady with a great passion for plants.