James Bruce Irwin, 1921-2012

By Sandra Simpson

Bruce Irwin was regarded as one of this country’s greatest botanical illustrators of native orchids and had the honour of having two named for him.

But, modest man that he was, Bruce had mixed feelings about the naming of Pterostylis irwinii and Pterostylis irsoniana, saying it wasn’t quite the “done thing”. He also discovered several species himself.

The fourth of five children, Bruce was born in Wanganui, where his Irish father Sam was a men’s outfitter and tailor.

As a young teenager Bruce liked nothing better than to head off on his bicycle looking for native orchids to draw, something that was to become a life-long and all-consuming “hobby” that included almost 12 years’ labour on The Oxford Book of New Zealand Plants, published in 1978 and still considered a landmark.

After leaving Wanganui Technical College, Bruce trained as a draughtsman with the Department of Lands and Survey in New Plymouth and relished the proximity of Mt Taranaki and its native orchids. He was called up for pilot training late in World War 2, going on to spend a year in Japan with J Force after the war.

After a stint with Lands and Survey in Wellington, in 1962 Bruce bought a holiday camp in the Marlborough Sounds and it was there that he met renowned botanist Lucy Moore, who gave him a microscope.

“I could see the detail of the plant and understand how it worked,” he recalled in 2008. “I didn’t intend to become interested in botany, it just happened.”


In 1967 Bruce became artist-in-charge of the art department at Otago University’s medical school, a job he described as “the best in the world because I could get into the hills for days at a time”, thus allowing him to work on Volume II of the Flora of New Zealand (1970) and The Oxford Book of New Zealand Plants. He later provided illustrations for Bruce Clarkson’s 1986 book Vegetation of Egmont National Park and Field Guide to the New Zealand Orchids (1996).

A life member of the New Zealand Native Orchid Group, Bruce moved to Tauranga in 1981, joining the Tauranga Orchid Society and helping plant cymbidium orchids at Te Puna Quarry Park, now thought to be the largest outdoor planting in the southern hemisphere.

In 2000 Bruce was awarded the Allan Mere by the New Zealand Botanical Society, presented to an “outstanding botanist”. In 2004 the NZ Native Orchid Group published Bruce Irwin’s Orchid Paintings 1941-56: Watercolours of New Zealand native orchids and in 2007 the group produced a coffee-table book, Bruce Irwin’s Drawings of New Zealand Orchids– 765 pages that collected the best of Bruce’s work, some illustrations the only record of a plant that has since been lost.

See an appreciation of Bruce’s work at the NZ Native Orchid Group website, plus his botanical illustrations of Pterostylis irwinii (scroll to the bottom). See another botanical illustration (not an orchid) here.