Why Would a Grown Man Spend so Much Time with Roses?

by Randy Hughes
(RHA Newsletter - Summer 1998)

I've always enjoyed growing plants. My classmates and I in kindergarden each got a pumpkin seed to plant in a milk carton which we were allowed to take home when they sprouted. My dad always had a garden, and he showed me how to transplant it in the back of our large vegetable garden. I remember asking when I'd get a pumpkin. He told me there has to be a flower first, and if it gets pollen from an- other pumpkin flower on it, then I'd get my pumpkin. I checked it every day. It grew, and finally the first flower appeared. I asked him how do I put pollen on it, and he said the bees would do it for me. Soon the flower became a small green pumpkin, and others followed. I still checked my plant every day and was amazed at the process that finally offered me one giant pumpkin and several smaller ones. They made great jack-o- lanterns. I can't tell you how many times I told people, "Look what I grew!" I still say it now and then and have the same joy now that I did when I was five years old.

When I grew up and got married, of course I had to have a garden. I grew the usual vegetables and was moderately successful, but I had the most fun growing unusual crops like purple potatoes, blue corn, and pink tomatoes. I would tell my wife, "Look what I grew!" Once when I planted pumpkin seeds saved from the prior year's crop, we got the longest, skinniest pumpkins you ever saw! It occurred to me that it must be a cross with the zucchini that had been planted near it. "Look what I grew!" I became intrigued with hybridizing.

When we bought our house in 1992, it came with two apple trees, a huge garden plot, and a rather neglected rose garden. There were about ten roses which the previous owners didn't remember the names of. It also came with 250 feet of laurel hedge that I love to hate at pruning time!

The first couple years we concentrated on getting the place shaped up. While reading about pruning apple trees, I ran into an article on grafting and decided to try it the following spring. That year I studied the topic, took a class, and grafted everything in sight. Apples onto other apples, pears onto apples and mountain ash, and roses onto other roses were some of the things I tried. I had moderate success and many failures. The next year I had better success, but never did get a good graft on my roses.

As time went by, I really came to enjoy the roses. Slowly, but surely, I mastered the art of growing nice roses. I added a new rose every now and then and learned how different each type can be in flower, form, and disease resistance. I bought books and found that many wild roses are almost disease-free, and most modern hybrids are inclined toward one fungus or another. I wondered if a person could cross pollinate garden roses with the wild varieties and get attractive roses that would be more resistant to disease. I pondered cross pollinating my own roses throughout the summer and went to the library in search of information. It was extremely slim in regard to rose breeding.

Armed with very little information, I pinched pollen from several of my roses and sort of sprinkled it onto other roses. I didn't know that I was going about it all wrong, and that it was too late in the summer to get ripe hips from my efforts. The only ripe hips I got that fall were from flowers I had missed when deadheading. Determined, I decided to see if I could get any of these seeds to sprout.

The books I had read described stratification of seeds, so I put them in pill bottles and into the refrigerator. I ended up with a mass of moldy seeds. Disgusted, I tossed them in the rose garden in the middle of winter. That spring while weeding, I kept my eye open in the area where the seeds had been tossed, hoping to see a seedling. I pampered a raspberry seedling for about a month before I realized it wasn't what I had hoped. I finally did spot one little seedling with its second set of suspiciously rose-like leaves. Eight weeks later it bloomed a pretty pink, and I was pleased and excited. I named it Miss Kate, after my daughter. "Look what I grew!"

Since then, I have found new books, and learned how to more effectively cross pollinate roses. Miss Kate is an actual bush now and has shown herself to be a pink floribunda, almost identical to one that came with the house. She's not show quality, but she's my first and blooms in flushes all summer. I'm going to keep her.

As soon as I learned there were "search engines" when we got our computer last year, I began looking for other people who shared my interest in rose hybridizing. I've learned more from all the people I've met on the Internet and the forums than I was ever able to at the library. What a nice bunch of people! I would like to thank each of them for their help, patience, and encouragement. I often see questions on the forum and think, "I remember asking that one." I reply to them, realizing how fortunate we are to be able to ask dumb questions of kind hearted souls who are willing to share their knowledge.

One of the first things I learned "on line" was that there are people who will tell you that you can't get nice roses from open pollinated seeds. I suspect most of these "experts" have never sprouted a rose seed. I have had many nice roses from randomly fertilized seeds and from hybridized ones. They all may not be show quality, but for the backyard gardener some are very satisfying, if not superior, to many commercial varieties. I have had "keepers" from open pollinated seeds of Showbiz, All That Jazz, Tropicana, Bonica, and a few others. Each is different from its parent in varying degrees, but has qualities that make it desirable in its own right. From open pollinated seeds, I learned a lot about genetics and the variability that can occur in seedlings. I got five seedlings from one Bonica hip. Of these four were singles, having only five petals, and one was so double that it looked funny on such a tiny plant. Three of the singles grew to be four or five feet tall and spindly. The other grew to be only a foot and a half tall and prone to blackspot. The double has become a beautiful 2' tall nonstop bloomer that is very resistant to fungal diseases. Its blooms have fifty or more petals that are quartered and hold a long time on the bush.

Showbiz and All That Jazz have produced seedlings that are very similar to their parents, while Wenlock produces mostly very fragrant singles from its open pollinated seeds. Caribia, a striped sport of Picadilly, has never passed on its stripes, but I've since learned the reason which I'll get to later. Tropicana seems to pass its red/orange color most of the time, but occasionally offers up a surprise yellow or a mixed red and yellow bloom.

Some of my crosses have produced nice roses. Among them are Summer Sunshine x Tropicana, which had a yellow bloom until I put it outside. The buds now start out bright red and open to yellow. I'm sure the sunlight causes the red coloration of the outer petals. Another of the same cross consistently produces yellow blooms that would be quite nice if they didn't always have big green globs where stamens should be. These vegetative centers render the bloom sterile, so this rose is unsightly as well as useless in further breeding. I have a Tropicana x pink floribunda which is positively feminine in appearance. It is snow white with the faintest of pink at the center. I don't know yet if it will be more like its floribunda parent, a hybrid tea, or a large grandiflora, but its blooms are very tea-like in bud and open stage. Granada seems to cross well with most of my other roses, and as a seed parent shows a wide variety of bloom types in each cross. It has produced seedlings of red, pink, yellow, and near white when crossed with Snowfire.

Some of the genetic principles to be considered when hybridizing I learned years ago in college botany class. Internet acquaintances I've made, however, have added more to my understanding. Not all roses have the same number of chromosomes. Most modern roses somewhere in the history of rose breeding have had their chromosome count doubled. Wild roses are generally diploid, having two sets of seven chromosomes, while most modern hybrids are tetraploid, with four sets of the seven. While crosses can be made between diploid and tetraploid roses, the resulting triploid offspring are almost always sterile.

In rare instances nature has ways of correcting fertility abnormalities, as was the case with the supposedly sterile diploid Max Graf. Max Graf is a R. rugosa x R. wichuraiana cross. Kordes' plant produced a tetraploid seedling (Rosa X kordesii) that was fertile and could be crossed with hybrid teas and other modern roses. Sometimes when very wide diploid crosses are made, the seedling has reduced fertility because not all corresponding chromosomes find their match at meiosis. Chromosomes pair up in the center of the cell and spindle fibers pull one of each pair to each new sex cell. If there are lone chromosomes that don't find their match, both chromosomes may go to one sex cell or the other causing chromosome additions or deletions. By doubling the chromosomes to the tetraploid level through drugs like colchicine, the lone chromosomes now have a duplicate of themselves to effectively pair with. Sometimes chromosome doubling naturally can occur as with Kordes' Max Graf seedling. Robert Basye has used this technique with wide species crosses. These chromosome doubled rose hybrids with increased fertility are referred to as amphidiploids. R. X kordesii I feel is a great source of hardiness and disease resistance. It can be used, as Kordes has done, to produce robust new cultivars. I would like to obtain some R. X kordesii stock to incorporate into my own breeding program.

I have learned that some traits are not heritable. While reading a text on plant genetics in farming, I learned that new traits from sports, or spontaneous mutations in a bud or branch, are often not heritable. There can be viral causes, such as striped blooms in certain hybrid teas and old garden roses. Some sports occur as a result of mutation in only one layer of the three layers in a growing point. These layers seldom mingle so there may be one layer of sport over, between, or under two layers of the original cultivar. The mutation may or may not occur in the layer where the egg and pollen arise from. For this reason, many sports are incapable of passing on the desirable trait(s) to their offspring.

In the example of striped blooms, it has been determined that there are cultivars which can pass on the trait, and all of these cultivars are unsported seedlings. Ferdinand Pichard, a hybrid perpetual with stripes, holds great promise for me. It has been shown to frequently pass on the striped trait. McGredy says his Papageno should also be a good stripe donor, although its origin is undisclosed.

This year I have made many crosses with Hansa, a rugosa, as the seed parent. It is a good seed setter, and has seemed to accept pollen from both wild and domesticated roses. Some of the crosses I have made with it are Honor, Granada, Ferdinand Pichard, Tropicana, Snowfire, Summer Sunshine, Rosa canina, Rosa nutkana, Veilchenblau, and Oz Gold, a mini. I had high hopes for these obviously successful hips, until Henry Kuska shared with me the fact that rugosas often shed their pollen before the bloom opens, thereby fertilizing themselves before they receive foreign pollen. Rather than feeling disappointed, I now look forward to seeing these seedlings next year even more. Any crosses I get will be all the more precious. I took special care when I pollinated these, emasculating the bloom while in bud stage, and I feel there should be at least a few successful crosses. I expect the crosses between "Hansa" and my modern roses will be sterile, but the two wild species I crossed with it may be fertile. These will probably not be repeat bloomers, but if backcrossed to Hansa or sibling mated between themselves, there should be recurrent bloom in some of their offspring.

Another source for hardy, disease resistant "wild" genes should be Basye's amphidiploid and a few of its offspring. It is an induced tetraploid cross of R. abyssinica x R. rugosa and should thus produce fertile offspring with most modern roses. I would very much like to obtain this rose for future crosses.

There have been good results in doubling the chromosomes of plants (including roses) with the use of certain poisons applied to seeds and/or seedlings. I have experimented with one of them, and have had uncertain results so far. I plan to discontinue these experiments because of the danger in using such hazardous materials. It will probably be a couple years at least before I can determine whether or not I have accomplished what I wanted. Either way, there are many more crosses that I can try with existing cultivars that may bear fruit in my search for hardy, robust garden roses.

One may wonder if I am trying to breed roses for the retail or commercial market. At this point in my life, that is far from my mind. The satisfaction I get from hybridizing is reward enough. If the day comes that I feel I have created a rose that is so unique that the world might want it, I will be perfectly happy to seek introduction, but for now it is enough that I can enjoy my roses and share them with friends.

I get pleasure from hybridizing on many levels. I have always enjoyed learning new things, and my involvement with roses has given me the opportunity to learn along the way. I like people, and roses have given me an opportunity to "meet" many people who are generous with their time and knowledge. I like surprises, and hybridizing has consistently offered up the unexpected. A person needs to have things to look forward to. The crosses I make this year hold promise of reward next year. I love to share with others. Each time a friend or acquaintance takes home one of my roses, I feel good. There is no higher form of flattery than to ask advice of others. When asked for input or advice by a newcomer to hybridizing, I get real pleasure helping them out. I love the outdoors, and hybridizing gives me something to do outside come rain or shine. I love my family, and I can practice my hobby at home while others are leaving their loved ones to amuse themselves. I can involve my wife, sons, and daughter, instead of leaving them behind while I go out to play.

Rose hybridizing may be the "perfect" hobby. It costs very little, can be done in as much or as little time as you have to spare, and offers many sideline activities such as reading, visiting public rose gardens, or corresponding with others. In addition, it holds the promise that you may somehow create a new cultivar that is truly noteworthy. You can say, "Look what I grew!"

I would like to thank Karl King, David Zlesak, Henry Kuska, and Bob Byrnes for corresponding with me and sharing their ideas and knowledge, as well as all the people who have posted useful information on the "Rose Propagation Forum" hosted by Malcom Manners.

What are my plans for the future? I plan to obtain a few more disease resistant roses to breed with, maybe a R. x kordesii cultivar or one of Dr. Basye's amphidiploid types. I'll also continue reading anything I can find that can increase my knowledge on the subject. You can be sure I'll continue passing pollen in the spring and filling the salad drawer in the refrigerator with seeds in the winter. I'll correspond with my rose friends, trade seeds by mail, and walk my test garden often to see how each seedling is coming along. Every so often I'll ponder how lucky we are to be able to spend time working with Mother Nature and learning a few of her secrets. We have time and resources that should be treasured.

To all of those who share this creative and beautiful hobby, may your roses bring as much joy to others as they do to you.

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