Sunday, January 24, 2010

Twelve years into this work and I still know next to nothing about roses!

At left: 'Marianne' a Hybrid Gallica.

Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but some days it feels that way. *laughs* I mean, I know plenty about how certain traits follow Mendelian genetics in a fairly straightforward manner and how often they will manifest in a group of seedlings; miniaturism is a dominant, China-type remontancy is a recessive, etc. But what is happening in instances where two modern repeat-blooming hybrids are crossed and a large percentage of the offspring are once-blooming? How many genes control disease immunity, and how are they inherited? Does each species of rose have its own unique gene for Blackspot resistance, and if so, how do we tap into that set of genes to make the trait reliably transmissible for future generations? Surely its way past time that roses were freed of the disease problems that have plagued them for over 100 years!? Unfortunately its just not that simple. I can attest to the fact that any time you cross a completely disease free rose with a modern hybrid that has traits you want, you will lose most, if not all of the disease resistance so valued in the one. Certainly, people like Bill Radler have contributed significantly to improvements in this area, but many will agree that roses like 'Knockout', as valuable as they are as a landscape shrub, lack sophistication of bloom style.

It is at this point that I begin to realize that some of the goals I have in mind are going to require many years to accomplish, if they are possible at all. Robert Basye put many years of effort into breeding for Blackspot immunity and while he felt he had barely made a dent in the problem, some of his roses are remarkably free from disease. 'Commander Gillette' and 'Basye's Blueberry' are both very clean, easy to grow varieties that I am now using in my work. Both are very pleasing shrubs with virtue in a garden setting, by the way.

Looking at what a temperamental lot our modern roses are, I can't help but think that many poor choices were made in their evolution. I mean, consider the whole exhibiting thing as it started in Europe with the Hybrid Perpetuals and early Hybrid Teas: the plants were inconsequential, it was the blooms that were important. (The "English Boxes" were the epitome of this nightmare, where all you did was lop the blooms off and display the beheaded flowers stuffed into holes arranged on the top of the box. Frankly, that is an ugly concept in my opinion.) So what we ended up with were a lot of early roses that were unmanageable in the garden without a lot of human intervention. Hybrid Perpetuals were manured like no tomorrow, pruned hard and fussed over just to get a second crop of blooms; hardly "perpetual"! The early Hybrid Teas weren't much better except they inherited a more reliable repeat bloom habit from their Tea parents. They were still ungainly plants, many of them, with poor architecture that contributed little to the garden landscape. In fact, roses weren't considered part of the garden landscape at all: they were planted in designated beds in tidy rows, without competition, where their sole purpose was as bloom machines. The whole idea of making roses for landscape integration was largely lost as Hybrid Teas evolved. And here we are today, still struggling to correct the problem. Ugh.

And so on we trudge, trying to improve upon what we have, using what is available to us. Sometimes I look at a thicket of R. woodsii or R. pisocarpa and think "Now there is a perfect rose!" The only thing that needs to be done is make it bloom all Summer long. Oh, and make it come in different colors, too. And maybe add a few more petals, you think? But the petals are arranged too loosely, so lets try for a more sophisticated arrangement of petals, and if its not too much trouble, lets increase the bloom size to five inches and remove the thorns while we're at it. You see where this goes, don't you? *snicker*

There are no perfect roses, only visions of perfection. The visions lead us by the nose, tempting us to achieve, but when so many variables are involved, chances are once you cement one trait into place, fifteen others have been lost, and the cycle of adding and losing goes one for years, decades. Ralph Moore knew more about this than anyone. A hundred and two years wasn't enough time to get everything done that he wanted to. I'll be lucky to accomplish half of what he managed. So, off I go; there is a forty pound box of rose hips in the fridge that needs my attention. I've sown some seed already, but I've barely gotten started. With any luck, out of the 50,000 seeds I am sowing this year, I will find half a dozen plants that help me on the journey towards my perfect rose.


  1. I did a quick HMF search on your 'Marianne'. It has only excellent reviews from members of the "HMF readership".

    So, I am sure there are more such high calibre roses in that box of yours....

    Carry on shellin' those rosehips, Paul!

  2. Hi Paul, I just read your thoughts on the process. I get nervous thinking about it all. I admire your patience and outcome. This year will be my first attempt at growing a climbing rose. It will be yours, Janet Inada. As the yard fills, it is time to go up! Thank you for sharing insights into your mind. Sincerely, Rod Wright, Hauser, Idaho

  3. You know... I think we put too much pressure on ourselves to tackle this blackspot issue. Maybe instead of going for complete immunity we should just breed for the most healthy each time and make small incremental steps knowing that each time we do we are closer to the ideal (knowing we shall never actually attain it). I can walk around my property here, where I also grow Australian native plants... especially those indigenous to the area, and on any one plant I can find signs of some pathogen or some insect causing some degree of damage... and these are plants that have evolved in the area for millions of years... what chance do I have of taking a northern hemisphere plant genus and sticking them in a southern hemisphere environment to grow free of diseases. The best I can EVER hope for is a plant that is, on balance, healthy and resilient. In fact resilience is the trait I look for most... a plant that can grow well, without intervention on unimproved ground that is able to strike an equilibrium between disease and healthy growth so that on balance it is a strong healthy bush more in tune with its envorinment. Even bracteata gets black spot here, but then my massive Tasmanian Blue Gums (Eucalyptus globulus), nearly 50m tall and whose trunks are 3m in diametre, get phytophera too and scale, and thrip etc... I think people need to have a certain amount of realism about roses too... we accept the fact that most plants are likely to show some disease in their lifetimes but we expect roses to be able to withstand the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' in super-hero-like fashion *shrugs* Having said that... there are so many roses that should never have made it past the compost heap too... the way I look at it is that it's a matter of tracing steps made backwards to where it all went pear shaped and starting a-fresh from there.

  4. Very interesting (sorry, I can not good english...=0(( )....
    I love roses.
    I've got 90 roses on 225 m2.
    But wet area....and STERNRUSSTAU.
    No's a very big problem!
    Rudolf Geschwind ( was an very good old
    His book has today validity.

    Hugs...Luna (