arhs Yachts International
arhs Yachts International

Captain Steele Tribute page

Captain Richard M. SteeleThanks for helping us to remember and celebrate our friend and mentor, Captain Richard Steele, who passed away quietly March 14, 2010





I was privileged to have had the opportunity to develop Pine Grove Park on the outskirts of Liverpool with Dick Steele. The goal was to grow the 50 acre site which had been a beauty spot for over a century into a multi-interest community park. As a result of Dick’s leadership, his generosity and imagination, it has more than achieved the goal and has become one of the major rhododendron plantings in Nova Scotia. As we established the plantings Dick always admonished us to preserve the natural flora which do so much to add to the beauty of the site. They are enjoyed by thousands of visitors throughout the year though, certainly, there is an extra surge of visitors when the rhodos are in bloom.

Dick’s self-effacing generosity was shown in so many ways as we were working on Pine Grove. I remember one call in particular. “Chris, I’ve got a problem. Can you help me?” Obviously the answer was yes. “We’ve got too many PJMs. Would you send down a truck to take them to the park?” When we unloaded the truck there were 75 PJMs!! Everyone will enjoy this gift yet again in just a few weeks time.
Recently when I visited Dick in hospital, we discussed why some Magnolias Legacy bloomed so well whilst his and mine did not. “Get some cuttings from the ones in Annapolis and I’ll root them for you” was his solution.

Dick was banned from visiting my garden when I wasn’t home. Years ago I had planted M.Galaxy by the carport. I had planned to espalier it but never got around to doing so. Peggy, my wife, wanted it moved but I told her it would only grow as high as the gutter so she relented in her demand. Dick dropped in one day when I wasn’t home. As he and Peggy were walking around the garden, he asked why I had planted Galaxy so close to the house as it will grow 40 feet tall. I got a blast when I got home. Fortunately the plant was, by then, too big to move. Dick teased me about it when I last saw him.

We who garden all have a mountain of memories of Dick to carry us through a time like this but I think one of his most outstanding attributes was the impact he had on everyone he met. I frequently meet people who can hardly tell a dandelion from a chokecherry who know and speak so well of Captain Steele.

And one final thought: Dick told me once that his family once owned land on Williams Lake in Halifax. I said “I bet you wish you still had it ”. He responded, “If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t change a thing!”

Christopher Clarke

Ken and I met Dick Steele 30 plus years ago in Norfolk, Virginia. Dick was stationed there in the Canadian Navy. Ken had Le-Mac Nurseries, Inc. growers of azaleas and rhododendrons which his father had started in 1927. It naturally followed that we all got to know Dick Steele through the crossing of paths at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, the (now defunct) Tidewater Chapter of ARS, Mrs. Zelma Crockett’s wonderful azalea, rhododendron and camellia garden, and Dr. David Fluharty’s rhododendron nursery. Dick used to have “afternoon teas” for the afternoon work break!

Thereafter we visited Dick in Nova Scotia a couple of times, the first being many years ago when he showed us around his nursery and also introduced us to Dr. Donald Craig and the Kentville Experiment Station. Then just a few years ago our local Hampton Roads Horticultural Society had a trip to Nova Scotia that John Weagle helped us with by making some of the arrangements. We saw Dick then when he took us around his old neighborhood planted with his rhododendrons. He was just as lively as every although he did finally use a cane!

We will miss him.

Sandra & Ken McDonald

Hampton, Virginia

Some photos, courtesy of Bruce Clyburn

Cpt Steele2

Cpt Steele at Funeral of Ship Mate 2005

Dick Steele has made an impression on so many lives during his long, interesting life. He is so deeply missed already, by many people across North America and beyond, but his legacy lives on in countless gardens, both public and private. In my own garden, spring will be heralded very soon by the flowering of the Pieris he gave me. The young wisteria that was a shoot off his massive wisteria is showing good new buds and will put on much growth this year. Because of his enthusiasms and encouragement, I learned even I could have rhododendrons, magnolias, and other wonderful things, here on my windswept foggy hill. He inspired me, as he did countless others, to plant more beautiful things and to encourage others to do the same, and he will continue to inspire me. “Bravo Zulu”, Captain Steele.

Jodi Delong

Photos, courtesy of Jodi Delong

Cpt steele 4

On Sunday March 28th, the Herald will be running the tribute piece Jodi wrote at their request. In the meantime, I’d be honoured to offer up this little snippet from a letter I wrote to CBC Radio

Here is a link to the most recent Letter & blog post Jodi wrote about Captain Richard Steele

A couple of additional photos of our friend Captain Steele, taken on our trip to Labrador in 2007

Cpt Steele JD1

Cpt Steele JD2

I first met Captain Steele at his nursery during a field trip with Pat Pelham and the rest of the horticultural staff of the Historic Gardens around 25 years ago. The things I remember most about our visit are the mosquitoes(!), the beautiful rhododendrons and the warmth and friendship shown to us by Dick Steele. This continued over the years and we are very grateful for all the support and contributions made by Capt. Steele to the Gardens–advice, plants and inspiration. We are so thankful that Capt. Steele was able to come to Annapolis Royal last May to speak at our Magnolia Celebrations, and we will be thinking of him this spring and others to come as our R. ‘Nancy Steele’, Magnolia ‘Jennifer Robinson’ and other plants he donated continue to grow and bloom and remind us of a great friend.

Karen Achenbach

It was 34 years ago that I visited Dick Steele at his Bayport Plant farm. As usual we talked about rhododendrons and the fact that Rhodo Soc. Canada annual meeting was to be held in Montreal. At this point we decided to go to the meeting in Dick’s panel truck loaded with rhodo trusses from the Kentville Research Station. The trusses were placed in pop bottles filled with ginger ale and water. Dick drove while I turned 180 degrees with a misting bottle and kept the trusses fresh. It was a good trip. We returned with two silver trophies ( including best in show) plus 9 first , 3 seconds and 4 third place ribbons. We talked all the way to Montreal and back to Bayport. Yes I got to know Dick much better. One of the very best and most pleasant things I have ever done. —

Don Craig

Indeed, I agree a hero, mentor, an amazing plantsman recognized the world over, has left us. I do count myself blessed to have been associated with him over the years, as an avid helper in one of his many beautification projects, namely Pine Grove Park, Milton, N. S. Those were great occasions, adding so many plants there, that will now stand as testament to his vision, and passion. I remember the detailed notebooks, with a pencil attached by string to the notebook, and his address on the back page, in case this valuable information should be lost, and need to be returned to him. There must be many such notebooks, a valuable record of his lifetime of work. I remember the stories, the great gardens of England, and plantspeople he had met over the years; stories of bottles of Scotch hidden in the duff at Pine Grove Park, and many other places.

The trips to Newfoundland, and Labrador, there are many, many stories and remembrances of those. A treasure trove of memories. I remember our memorial to the great John Meaugher, held at a beautiful panoramic vista near ST. Mary’s Bay in Labrador. We gathered around the rock inukshik shrine to John, at 10:00 am, told each other stories of John, and out of Capt. Steeles’s sock came the bottle of Scotch, and a toast to our lost friend.

I remember the yearly visits to our favourite B&B in L’Anse Amour, Labrador, at the Davis home, and of the warm relationship built with Cecil, who always called Dick, Skipper, and with whom came the stories of the loss of the fishery in Labrador, and Cecil’s subsequent trips “down North” to Nain, for months at a time, to continue to make a living from his fractured fishery. Rita, the heart of their home, treated us all with such fondness, built again around all of us being part of Cap’t’s group. He always called her the flower of Flower’s Cove, her birthplace across the Strait in Newfoundland, where Cecil came to court her by boat, when she was just a young girl.

There were special birthdays celebrated each year at Rita’s and Cecil’s for Dick. These always challenged us, to come up with inventive gifts. Those stays, at Rita’s and Cecil’s, and the warmth of their deep affection for Dick, and including all of us, his friends, stand out as some of my fondest memories.

Who can forget Dick’s many phrases, at the header house at Bayport. The notes, “ he not here”, “he gone” or his answering the phone,” Lord Mountbatten here”. Someone asking Dick—what is the name of this yellow rhododendron? Why, it’s a yellow rhododendron, he would reply.

I’ll see him forever in Newfoundland and Labrador, in the vast waste spaces of garbage dumps, the limestone pavements, the barren outcroppings, in early years bending over these patches with huge patience, looking for our Alpine jewels, taking cuttings, gathering seed. In later years, he would be leaning first on one cane, then two.
Always, this great man was looking to the future, when these little seeds would reach maturity, or the Magnolias at Pine Grove Park would be 200 years old. You imagined he would be standing right there with them.

This man created a world of beauty, wherever he went, and changed all of us who came to know and love him.

Sandy Brown.

Although I never met Captain Steele, my parents Joe and Marta Brueckner held him in the highest regard and frequently spoke of him.

Over the years I was able to frame in my mind a picture of a rugged gentleman who enjoyed beauty, an untiring passion and curiosity for rhododendrons; known for his enthusiasm and willingness to share his extensive knowledge and experience; a storyteller who would entertain from his eclectic inventory of travel, adventure, humour; above all, kind, compassionate, and fair, a humanitarian, a giving person.

I wish I had known Captain Steele personally. His passing is a great loss especially to those who knew him well.

Christina Woodward

Some photos taken at Bayport Plant Farm,
courtesy of Barbara McLean

Captain Steele May 2006

Captain Steele's house Bayport 2006

Lloyd and Captain Steele Bayport 2006

a reputedly very difficult rhodo to bloom

Heroic is a good word, when speaking of the great man, Captain Richard Steele. He was to the East Coast, what Mary Greig was to the West Coast. They were figures who towered over everyone, with what they knew and what they had accomplished, for so long I first met Capt. Steele at the Annual Rhododendron Conference, in Vancouver B.C. On the Friday morning, I was working in the Stanley Park Garden {later to be named The Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron Garden} When I saw a man striding across the Pitch and Putt Golf Course. There were four fairways, all being played and he crossed them all! He introduced himself and we spent the remainder of that happy morning, in the rhododendron collection. The following day he was back again, this time to spend another morning.

In the evening of the first visit with him, I told an-ex naval type about this meeting. Russel Boyd recounted the story of his trip to England in an aircraft carrier which brought back plants from Windsor Great Park. When I asked Captain Steele about this, he slapped himself on his chest, exclaiming, “that’s me, that’s me.” His second shipment of plants came by air-transport and flew into Comox, Vancouver Island. How they got 4,000miles back east, he did not say.
My next meeting was when he created The Steele Lectures and I was invited to be the inaugural speaker. During this visit, we were to go to the Boulderwood Gardens where the CBC were to tape me asking Captain Steele questions. I asked only one and once started, he never stopped! He spoke at fascinating and great length about his garden, his plants, his hybrids and with that wonderful ability to speak about them.

Then a group of us went to the beautiful Pinewood Grove Park, where Captain Steele planted the first Rhododendron. He described what he envisioned with selection, placement and how the undergrowth could be brightened. In our garden we have a charming rhododendron, sent by him, because on two visits I said it was the best hybrid in his garden! It is named Cook’s Tour, in honor of that first visit. Captain Steele never aged and his light never dimmed for us and we have photos and documentaries to keep him, very much alive still, for us.

Yours in gratitude, Alleyne Cook, North Vancouver, B.C..

Inspiration and Mentor

I was outside in my garden yesterday trying to get a jump on the very fast approaching early spring. As I was clearing the leaves from a group of Rhododendron keiskii selections Dick gave me, I began reflecting on an individual who has played a critical role in my life as a mentor and friend. I first met Dick in the early 80’s on a blistering hot day in Bayport under those magnificent dogwoods at the nursery. I had heard about the “Captain” a few years back when I was attending the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. My neighbor in residence, Kevin Burgess, kept talking about this “Captain” on the south shore who grew Rhododendrons and had acres planted. I remember coming to the nursery that day and couldn’t believe the overwhelming amount of plant material that was there. But not the plants that I was learning about a few years before…These where all the plants that were “Tender” or “Borderline Hardy” according to the literature. When I asked him why the “Books” said these wouldn’t be suitable for growing here he replied. “In my experience plants don’t read well”. I learned more about plant hardiness in that one day than I did in my whole post secondary education.

I had the privilege of working with Dick on a variety of projects most memorable are the plantings in Pine Grove Park and collecting trips to Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an inspiration for me to begin the initial Magnolia plantings in Annapolis Royal. He would say “You need to plant at least 500 every spring for at least 10 years”. And don’t plant a few on the streets…Line the street”.

Dick knew plants; he knew plants in a way that only a few individuals know plants. He could root just about anything from a cutting and grow just about anything from seed. He was so generous with material. Every time I visited, I would leave with cuttings or something choice. He would say “Try this one and let me know how it does in the Valley”. However, every so often if you where in the plant circle, your name would go on the infamous blackboard next to the name of the plant that you were to get when the cuttings rooted. The blackboard always had the names John Weagle, Chris Clarke and others next to the name of some choice plant. John Weagle once said “you may never get the plant once your name goes on the board, but your name will stay on the board.”

It was Dick who encouraged me to speak on plants and almost everywhere I went people would ask me, “do you know Captain Steele”?

My most memorable moments with Dick

Watching him killing bees while he was trying to do controlled crosses at Bayport.

At 80 plus years of age Cutting down old Rhodo plants with a chainsaw in 90 degree weather fully dressed not really sweating.

Trying to follow him in my truck from the Pine grove park meetings back to Bayport doing 70 miles an hour and still losing sight of him.

Having a drink of Scotch in Labrador to tribute John Meaugher.

“We may have to come in here at night to plant these”. (Dick Steele, Pine grove park plantings)

“We need to think 100 years from now”. (Dick Steele, Pine grove park meetings)

Walking through Bayport plantings in the spring.

Having pots of tea in the header house at Bayport

Showing me how to ID a Sitka Spruce by touch… Which I pass on to my students.

Calling really “choice” plants “Weeds”.. which I do

Cursing at the “Bayport Tigers” (Chipmunks) that ran through the header house.

Finding Phyllodoce caerulea in Labrador

Adding another plant next to my name on the blackboard.

Thank you Dick for your generosity, knowledge and encouragement. You were and still are a very, very positive mentoring role in my life. It was a privilege to know you. I will miss you.

Jamie Ellison

It seems like only yesterday, however in fact it is 25 plus years ago that I made my first visit to the Bayport Plant farm. I had taken a landscaping course from Jill Cooper-Robinson and we had a scheduled presenter who was to talk on Rhododendrons. It snowed that day and the presentation was cancelled. It was rescheduled to June, this time as a tour of The Bayport Plant farm.

My parents had a big Rhodendron on the front lawn and I thought Rhodos were all big and purple. Was I wrong! When I arrived at Bayport I must have seemed like a child at a candy store. I could not believe the plant diversity and selections available. We were introduced to Richard Steele. It was one of those life-changing events. The green finger disease had struck. Gardening was now part of my life.

As a new gardener I was always keen to know more and Cpt. Steele always had time to talk plants, even to a novice gardener like myself. Some of my best memories of the Captain were those cold days in early winter discussing plant at the header house at Bayport, those cups of tea and listening to those great stories.

Thank you Captain Steele for your generosity of both your knowledge and time. You will be missed.

Bob Pettipas

Some photos courtesy of Anitra Laycock

Cpt Steele 1999 Setting off by canoe into the Lewis Hills Nfld.

Cpt Steele 2000 Red Bay John Meagher Memorial

Cpt Steele 2007 92nd Birthday at Rita's in Labrador

We had heard of Captain Steele even before we moved to Nova Scotia, an article in a gardening magazine, an interview on the CBC and we had one rhododendron in our New Brunswick garden.

When we moved to Nova Scotia we connected with relatives. Halls Road was in full bloom and as we walked about I asked Dr. Robinson if he knew of ‘this Captain Steele’. He then proceeded to tell the story of Captain Steele and the wonderful plantings at Boulderwood. We were hooked.

The next weekend we made a trip to Bayport Plant Farm to get a magnolia and there was the man himself. I nervously asked him if there was anything special we needed to do when planting a magnolia. “Oh yes,” he said, eyes twinkling, “put the roots in the ground.” From that moment on you had a place in our hearts.

After we became involved with AHRS we were only too happy to deliver plants to Bayport. The reward was a chance to wander over the farm and have tea and stories with Captain Steele. If we had a question about a tree or a plant we had seen on our wander Captain Steele would search it out and come back with the answer.

The last time we delivered plants it was a cold wet April day. After tea and stories Captain Steele disappeared but left instructions that we were not to leave until he returned. Half an hour later, wet and splattered with mud from head to toe, he presented us with a yellow skunk cabbage for our new bog garden.

Captain Steele, we knew you for such a short time, and in the later years of your life, when time is so precious.

Thank you for sharing your time with two novice gardeners. We shall remember you.

Duff and Donna Evers

Like many a gardener in Nova Scotia, Bill and I have many rhododendrons and azaleas in our garden that have some connection to the varied efforts of Dick Steele.

One of our favourite anecdotes comes from back in the early 1990’s when Dick brought rhododendron seed to share with members of the Rhododendron Society. Bill asked about the origin of the seeds and Dick replied “just call them the Steele bastards”. That is how quite a number of plants are designated.

Cpt Steele plant 1 SB

They are possibly R. fortunei crosses which are not absolutely hardy here in the Antigonish area, but bloom profusely in a good year.

Cpt Steele plant 2 SB
Our conversations with Dick were somewhat infrequent, but most certainly never dull. Growing from seed was a pursuit both practiced and strongly encouraged by Dick. He was both a frequent contributor and purchaser of seed from the annual Seed Exchange. It was not unusual to receive a seed order for thirty or more seed packs from a given year. This habit was pursued until just a year or two ago. We were often surprised by the seemingly sudden appearance of a blooming plant that with further investigation proved to be one grown from one of Dick’s contributions. One such plant from a 1995 planting showed up last year. (catalgla x wardii) x (fortunei x wardii) BPT#89A (#59 from the ’95 Exchange)

Cpt Steele plant 3 SB
There are others that may forever be a mystery. Gaps in record keeping and/or lost tags are great mystery writers.

Cpt Steele plant 4 SB
Sharon Bryson & Bill Wilgenhof Antigonish NS

About March of last year, a few of the ARHS members were talking about a work party at the Bayport Plant Farm, so I contacted Captain Steele and he was agreeable to having a group of members, no more than 10, come to Bayport to do a little work. After some confusion about the date, Saturday, June 13th was settled upon.

We gathered at about 10 am, and were greeted with a hot cup of tea, compliments of Diana Steele. After tea and chat we were driven up to the higher part of the property and from there it was a walking tour with the added touch of a bit of work from time to time. There was Capt. Steele with his cane in one hand and umbrella in the other tramping thru the trees, checking on certain plants and speaking about them. It was an inspiration to see him doing that, at the age of 93 leading us through the woods on the property that he loved, and it was magnificent to see the 20 foot tall rhododendrons in full bloom among the native spruce, pines, birch and maples. For those of us that attended that outing, it was an honour to spend that time with him on the property that he loved.

(note also the AtlanticRhodo newsletter, Vol 33, # 3 October 2009 page 5)

Christopher Hopgood

Photos courtesy of Jeff Chown







I took this lovely picture of Captain Steele in the Boulderwood gardens a few years ago on a tour, and would like to add it to the Atlantic Rhodo collection.

I joined the Rhodo Society more than 15 years ago after attending a garden tour and a meeting with Penny Gale. It didn’t take long for me to be hooked on rhodos.

I had read about Capt Steele and heard about his vast knowledge and accomplishments in horticulture. I visited Boulderwood, Walter Ostroms’ garden, and Bayport Plant Farm. It was the visit to Ostroms’ beautiful garden that made me want to grow those tiny little Impeditums, Ramapos and the Kuisianums.

I got up the courage to speak to Capt Steele after one of the Rhodo meetings and he explained how to layer rhodos. I especially remember his patience and kindness with such a beginner gardener as I. I followed his instructions and have had great success with layering.

His presence at the Rhodo functions always seemed very special to me. I join everyone in saying that he will be missed.

Cindy MacDonald

Captain Richard M. Steele