James Feez’s great-great-grandfather collected the first known specimens of the Cooktown Orchid. Now, the young horticulturalist is reaping the fruits of his own labour.
Far North Queensland was a strange place for a rattlesnake, but in the mid-1800s, a wooden one spent four years serpentining around the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.
HMS Rattlesnake carried a number of naturalists, including biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and botanist John MacGillivray. But it was the ship’s surgeon, Dr John Thomson, who collected the first specimens of Dendrobium phalaenopsis, a delicate lilac flower, during a survey of Mount Aldophus Island off Cape York.
The samples were sent back to London where, in 1852, they were formally described and named as the Cooktown Orchid, despite Cooktown being 500 kilometres south. That flower was selected in 1959 as the state flower of Queensland.
“I’m glad they went for a native, because they had a few other options, and they were exotic species,” said Dr Thomson’s great-great-grandson James Feez (Bachelor of Applied Science ’15).
“One was from South America – I could never really understand why Brisbane’s floral emblem is the poinsettia, which is native to Mexico.”
Some 170 years after his ancestor collected those purple blooms, Feez has also found fertile ground in the world of plants.
The 27-year-old UQ graduate specialises in lifestyle horticulture and manages the nursery at Brookfield Gardens.
This year he received the President’s Young Achiever Award at the annual Garden Centre Association conference in Sydney.
“That was a bit of a shock to me, but it was also a great tool for a young person in the industry,” Feez said.
“I had this plaque under my arm at the conference, and it was a way I could get talking to people and ask questions.”
“I feel very privileged because there are a lot of people in the industry who don’t really get to this stage in their careers until a lot later in life, and the owners of Brookfield Gardens have been very supportive of me.”
Feez dates his green thumb back to another relative. His grandfather David Feez ran a farm at Eidsvold in Queensland’s Burnett region, growing crops such as sorghum.
“To be honest, I didn’t ever really know what I wanted to do from a young age, like many people, but I guess it just grew from working at my Grandad’s farm,” Feez said.
“Being around irrigation, and just seeing the passion that he had, probably planted the seeds, pardon the pun.”
As a teenager living in the leafy Brisbane suburb of The Gap, Feez seized opportunities to work for nursery owners, as well as landscape architect Steven Clegg.
He said his gardening mentor Greg Symons, from Gardens In Bloom, rekindled his love for lifestyle horticulture and encouraged him to pursue a career in the industry.
“I absorbed everything they said like a sponge,” Feez said.
After a two-year gap after high school, in which he developed his skills in the workplace, Feez decided to make it official with a university degree.
It was by coincidence that Feez chose to attend UQ, the institute established thanks to the influence of Dr Thomson’s son Lieutenant Colonel John Thomson, a pioneer surgeon during the late 1800s and advocate for a university to be established north of Sydney.
“I was never very studious in high school, so having that break, getting out of those bad habits, then going to uni and learning good habits was a very good move for me.
As it was, Feez’s three years at UQ’s Gatton campus was some of the most fun he’d had in his life: throwing himself into the campus activities; travelling as part of the rugby club; meeting his future wife Rachel – a veterinary technology student turned radiation therapist – and getting involved with the Plant Science Society, where he was part of a team that established one of the biggest community gardens at any Australian university campus.
“Animal sciences are very much emphasised at the Gatton campus, so it really gave us our own spot, so to speak,” he said.
"The community garden team consisted of passionate horticultural and plant-science students, who were keen to see an emphasis on the plant and crop sciences at Gatton.
“That was a really good learning experience for me, being on a board and working with senior staff at UQ Gatton and also working with the students to share that information. That’s something that has helped me in my current role as manager at Brookfield Garden Centre.”
Feez said he gets a buzz out of helping solve problems with his customers’ household and garden plants – even if it the request is usually “Help me, they’re dying.”
He’s also in hot demand socially for his knowledge.
“You could compare it to doctors being asked about medical things. As soon as I present myself as a plant enthusiast, it’s ‘my indoor plant is doing this’ or ‘why isn’t it doing that’, and I think, ‘here we go,” he laughed.
"But you go down the list of questions, you eliminate what the problem couldn’t be, and then you come to a reasonable outcome.”
Visit the Future Students website for information on agricultural science degrees at UQ.