History of Roses: Part IV

Full Circle

David Austin’s work revolutionized rose breeding. Even rose breeders who once might have believed that the only rose they could ever sell would be a high-centered hybrid tea style rose came to understand that cold hardiness, vigor in cool summer climates, and resistance to blackspot and mildew had all become necessary qualities in commercially successful roses. The form of the plant became important, too.

Success in these areas could propel roses to positions of prominence. Bill Radler discovered this with his rose Knock Out and its close kin. Knock Out is a rose that develops quickly into a neat, head-height shrub. It’s flowers are not necessarily shapely but they are produced in two or more generous flushes. It is cold hardy to zone 4 and is almost unconditionally resistant to blackspot. Since its introduction in 1988 no cultivar has sold more units east of the Mississippi River. It has, almost singlehandedly, transformed the way Americans far from the West Coast view roses as garden plants. Meanwhile, Radler has been working on a similar package that delivers fragrance, too: see also Milwaukee’s Calatrava.

Shrub rose Knockout: hardy, vigorous, disease-resistant and free-flowering.

Running simultaneously, Carruth’s breeding program was producing new roses. Crystalline was introduced in 1987 as a disease-resistant and fragrant white hybrid tea rose. Stainless Steel arrived four years later as a vigorous and disease-resistant alternative to Sterling Silver – though those who can grow the original still swear by its scent. Scentimental, a fragrant rose striped red and white was released in 1997. So was the orange hybrid tea rose Chris Evert.

Most of Carruth’s roughly five dozen roses have been released since 1997. There have been notable hybrid teas and grandifloras among them including Dick Clark, Marilyn Monroe, Memorial Day, Neptune, Grande Dame, and We Salute You.

If Memorial Day is typical of the group, then a tiny portion of the coveted elegance of blossom that has been the trademark of the hybrid tea rose for a long time has been traded away in order to bring both fragrance and ease of cultivation in any US garden. The shape of its bud is not quite so petty as the best of the big exhibition flowers, but the plant proves far more vigorous and resistant to black spot than most hybrid tea roses. Something like this is true of Moonstone, a vigorous and chunky plant whose white roses have a hint of ivory at the base and a touch of blush at the petal tip, sometimes. Most who would view this as a bad trade, though, have the luxury of gardening where they can grow Herb Swim’s beauties without fear of freeze or fungus.

Rainbow Sorbet, a floribunda rose that puts on a great show all summer.

Carruth has spent a lot of effort perfecting the purplish rose with introductions like Barbara Streisand, Blueberry Hill, Purple Eden, Love Song, Ebb Tide, and Twilight Zone. All are fragrant and of easy care. Only the first is a hybrid tea rose. It’s but one example of the new point of view of the Carruth breeding program that puts a premium on garden-worthiness. The garden-friendly qualities shine brighter as one moves away from hybrid tea roses where fragrances, cultural qualities, and rose habit begin to count for a lot in the measure of a rose cultivar.

One wonders whether it will be his floribundas and compact shrub roses that will be Carruth’s most lasting legacy: Vavoom for its bright color, Betty Boop for its uniquely edged flowers, Hot Cocoa for its remarkable color and bloom generosity, Home Run for its sheer ability to produce red flowers on a bulletproof plant, and Julia Child for its perfect combination of delicious color, delicious scent, good floral production, disease resistance, vigor, and fine shrubby habit.

Floribunda rose South Africa.

Meilland has copied Austin’s aesthetic with the introduction of its Romantica series. The rose that most closely articulates the aesthetic might be Yves Piaget with its large, neon pink, fragrant roses. Abbaye de Cluny, Alain Souchon (Rouge Royale), Andre le Notre(Betty White), Toulouse-Lautrec do as well. Lacking fragrance but more than making up for it by its ability to create a rich and bountiful floral display is Pierre Ronsard, known stateside as Eden Rose. Gardeners of this rose seem to find superlatives insufficient to describe there admiration of its beauties, even though the blossoms lack fragrance.  In the hybrid tea area its California Dreamin‘ rose is aimed at replacing a rose with the same pink-edged white that lacks it.

The hybrid tea rose is not going away; it’s slowly being replaced by the hybrid tea rose that  does as well where Griffith Buck’s roses and  Earth Kind roses thrive as it would in balmy California.  As that job proceeds,  so will the work to make the hybrid tea rose fragrant. That’s the dream for the rose. Of course, if one looks in the right places, many really good roses exist.  And more of them are available today than ever before.

Just as the world of rose breeding has changed radically since the late ninteen eighties, so too has the world of rose distribution. Back then a few people noticed that the best roses bred in Europe too frequently were not distributed in the US. Firms sought to distribute roses bred by Tantau, Kordes, Harkness, Fryer, Cocker, and McGredy, and Austin, many of which were not otherwise reliably available. Furthermore, the number of good roses that had fallen off-patent and out of production was growing quite large by the mid-nineties.

A few distributors stepped in. Among them were Arena Roses, Edmunds, Heirloom Roses. The first two concentrated on hybrid tea roses. Arena is now defunct. Edmunds has been sold.

Catherine Mermet, a tea rose from the late nineteenth century.

Heirloom Roses, meanwhile, specializes in roses with both good health and lots of fragrance. Their catalogue includes a large number of fragrant hybrid tea roses, but they cultivate many hundreds of cultivars among old roses, shrub roses, floribunda roses, miniature roses, and climbing roses, making it easy for a rose lover to find just the right rose to solve a garden problem.  These are grown on their own roots; and the new garden plants are nothing like as big and muscular as the ones cultivated by the tens of thousands by huge firms, but with very careful site preparation and painstaking attention until they are established, they can do quite well.

The idea of offering for sale hundreds of cultivars at once was a novel idea in the 1980s. Now it is becomming the norm. Roses Unlimited and Rogue Valley Roses do something similar. Pickering Rose Nursery in Canada has been doing much the same but on a larger scale and with grafted rootstock.  Palatine Roses has recently joined the fray. We notice that several nurseries in Europe also have huge catalogues. Still offering roses on Dr. Huey rootstock from a number of rose wholesalers are places like Regan Roses and Roses Tulsa Incorporated.

Broadway, a colorful hybrid tea rose hardy to zone 6b.

The rose breeding industry underwent a lot of change with the great contraction of 2009, losing some of its largest US distributors and a number of its smaller ones. But the ones remaining each tend to distribute a much larger number of cultivars than did the defunct companies. This means that they are better prepared to meet a large range of differing requirements imposed by geography.

For the same reasons they are better prepared to deliver roses uniquely suited to a vast number of small niches. There exist a vast and growing number of rather different markets for roses: cutting roses for florists, exhibition roses for show-addicts, older roses for rose collectors, fragrant garden roses for the romantic rose gardener, patio roses for those who would grow roses in pots, and landscape plants for those who view the rose as one more landscape plant. Each of these markets presents unique demands on roses. These demands include cultural requirements, garden size and shape, hardiness,  remontance, floral plentitude, floral shape, fragrance, and the expectation that all of  those might be bet in every color and color combination. The number of unique niches for roses is huge.

As a result of two centuries of rose breeding and some very concerted, almost mad efforts on the parts of rose collectors and rose lovers, there now exist several thousand pretty good rose cultivars available in the trade to rose gardeners. The roses offered are suitable to a wide range of geographic areas, and they are poised to fill a wide range of gardening niches. Given this embarrassment of riches, it seems we live at one of the best times ever to be growing roses.