Emily Jean Burgess was born to Fanny Eleanor Hollard and her husband, Alfred Henry Burgess, a farmer, on 3 September 1900 at Stratford. Her parents later grew fruit and flowers at Kaiti, Gisborne, and Jean attended Kaiti School, winning a scholarship in 1913. When her mother and baby sister became ill the following year the family moved to Auckland. Jean briefly went to Auckland Girls’ Grammar School before they shifted in 1915 to Waikanae. She then stayed home to care for her youngest sister, educating her until standard one, while also working in the family’s new bulb-growing and cut-flower business. A diminutive 5 feet 1½ inches with grey-blue eyes (soon bespectacled) and brown, wavy hair, Jean carried out her duties with diligence and enthusiasm.
In 1921 her father imported some hybrid cultivars of tall bearded irises and in 1923 their propagation and sale became Jean’s special responsibility. Captivated by these exotic flowers, she decided to try creating improved and novel varieties. A paper by English enthusiast A. J. Bliss provided the guidance to make successful crosses, and after joining the Iris Society (later the British Iris Society) in 1928 she sent selections to overseas hybridisers for assessment. The aptly named Destiny was her first cultivar to win plaudits outside New Zealand: Geoffrey Pilkington, secretary of the Iris Society, encouraged its release on the British market and in 1934 it became the first southern hemisphere-bred iris to receive the society’s bronze medal.
At a flower show in 1935 Jean met Wallace Rex Stevens, a partner in Stevens Brothers nursery, Bulls. The couple married on 22 February 1936 at Otaki. In 1937 their only child, Jocelyn, was born and the first Stevens Brothers catalogue of bearded irises was issued. Three of Jean’s irises received awards of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in England between 1936 and 1939. Another, Inspiration, attracted the attention of noted American iris hybridiser Robert Schreiner, who introduced a selection of her cultivars to the American market.
In another innovation for the nursery Jean began sending a variety of cut flowers and foliage to Wellington for auction. This became the mainstay of the business after it moved in 1945 to Bastia Hill, Wanganui. Although Jean replaced Wally’s brother in the nursery partnership, the name remained Stevens Brothers.
Jean also started expanding the colour range in tall bearded irises of the amoena group – those with white standards and violet, violet-blue or purple falls. When Pinnacle, an outstanding white and yellow amoena (arguably a world first) emerged from her breeding programme, she gained international recognition. Introduced in 1949, Pinnacle became one of the world’s more popular irises, receiving an award of merit from both the American Iris Society (1951) and the Royal Horticultural Society (1959). Jean subsequently produced amoenas with deeper yellow, pale blue, plum-red and pink falls.
As well as cross-breeding hybrid cultivars, she grew many species and reported probably the first crosses between Iris juncea and Iris boissieri and between Iris wattii and Iris tectorum. In 1953 her colourful strain of Iris innominata ‘created quite a stir’ at the Chelsea Flower Show. Her writings, ranging over the entire genus, appeared in New Zealand gardening magazines and in iris publications overseas. In 1952 her handbook The iris and its culture was published in Australia.
Jean Stevens was a foundation member in 1948 of the Australian Iris Society. In June 1949 she became federal president of the renamed Australian and New Zealand Iris Society, but administrative difficulties resulted in her recommending separation in November. With C. A. Teschner and D’Arcy Blackburn she founded the New Zealand Iris Society, becoming president (1949–51, 1956–57), its Bulletin editor for 10 years, and registrar of New Zealand cultivars from 1957 until her death. She was elected a life member in 1959. Energetic, well organised and articulate, she could be sharply witty in exposing pretensions and sometimes devastatingly critical, yet ‘endlessly patient with those eager to learn’.
The British Iris Society awarded Jean Stevens the prestigious Foster Memorial Plaque in 1953. The honour she valued most, however, was the American Iris Society’s hybridisers’ medal for 1955. Between 1949 and 1961 her cultivars achieved two American awards of merit and six honourable mentions. She was guest speaker at the American society’s annual convention in 1956 and was appointed an honorary judge in 1962.
Besides thousands of irises, the nursery amassed a remarkable collection of Australian and South African flora, including some species the Stevenses collected in the countries of origin. They were New Zealand pioneers in utilising this flora, especially proteas and leucadendrons, for large-scale cut-flower production. Jean made the first known crosses between Leucadendron laureolum and Leucadendron salignum – the once popular Red Gem originated in this way. Her son-in-law, Ian Bell, joined the partnership about 1961 and at her suggestion instituted a more extensive hybridisation programme in 1962–63 that yielded Safari Sunset, an important flower export. Between 1961 and 1963 the Stevenses faced losing part of their land to a proposed primary school. Their successful appeal against this move was supported by horticultural authorities in New Zealand and overseas.
By 1962 Jean had ceased commercial iris production. Ill health prevented her from giving a paper in person at the international Florence Symposium of Iris in Italy in 1963. Although increasingly bent with osteoporosis, she managed a trip in 1964 to South Africa, where she lectured in Cape Town. The Queen Mother asked to visit the Stevenses’ gardens during her 1966 tour and reportedly left ‘with an armful of slips and cuttings’.
Early in 1967 Jean Stevens was elected an associate of honour of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture. That year at an international iris competition in Florence her pink amoena Sunset Snows took third place and won cups for the best early variety and for the most original colour. It was the first time a prize in the competition had gone to the southern hemisphere and the first time one cultivar had collected three prizes.
Jean Stevens died in Wanganui on 8 August 1967, having registered some 391 iris hybrids in her lifetime. She had continued her hybridisation programme and remained a regular Bulletin contributor to the end. A selection of her articles was published posthumously as Jean Stevens on irises to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the New Zealand Iris Society in 1970, when the annual Jean Stevens Memorial Lecture was inaugurated. After Wallace Stevens died in 1974, the wholesale floristry business was continued by Ian and Jocelyn Bell.