I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

The challenges of engineering roses.

If the American public takes roses for granted that's understandable. When beautiful, fragrant flowers are associated with names like Peace, Paradise, Scentimental or Double Delight, their existence seems like the most natural and inevitable thing in the world. In reality, roses are developed through a painstaking process that's a combination of trial & error and good old-fashioned hard work. Fact is, it takes eight to 11 years to develop a new rose and bring it to market. Any given seedling has about as much chance of becoming a commercially available variety as a teenager has of growing up to be a rock star.

At Jackson & Perkins, one of three active rose developers in the U.S. (along with Weeks Roses and Bailey's Nursery) a team of 15 full-time staffers works with 400,000 seedlings a year. Through a rigorous process of elimination, they funnel the number of contenders for mass production down to 3,000 and then 300 and 100, before selecting the seven to 10 plants that make the grade. 

“In our program, 99.999 percent are failures and .001 percent are successful,” says Dr. Keith Zary, VP of research for Jackson & Perkins. At Weeks the ratio is similar, where 200,000 seedlings yield three or four commercial releases. Faults that commonly get a seedling turned into compost include: too few petals, poor form, muddy color, susceptibility to mildew, or simple lack of vigor. 

According to Zary—who as a hybridizer is responsible for deciding which parents to cross with each other—the process is similar to breeding animals. “As with horses and dogs you want to avoid inbreeding,” he says. “You develop lines that become favorites and you can begin to predict what kind of offspring you're going to get. The biggest advantage is that we deal with larger numbers and don't have any guilt about killing the offspring,” he notes dryly.

In recent years, computers have had a major impact on the process. “We can now keep track of long-term breeding records and manipulate that data much more easily,” says Zary. “Being able to travel around the country and overseas to look at your material in different climates has also helped.” At Jackson & Perkins, the process of evaluating contenders at a geographically diverse selection of growth sites begins following the cut-down to 300 plants.

Once a rose is selected for public consumption, the breeder begins the long process of producing enough plants to meet projected demand. Although popularity is largely influenced by trends—a vexing problem for breeders developing flowers that won't reach the public for a decade—the name a rose receives is more critical to its commercial success than you might expect.

According to Tom Carruth, research director for Weeks, “You can have a very good rose that is ruined by a bad name.” Case in point is the Jackson & Perkins Pink Hybrid Tea initially dubbed Jadis [Jay-dis]. “It was a very fragrant rose,” recalls Zary, “but nobody could pronounce the name and it was never a commercial success. When they changed the name to Fragrant Memory it became enormously popular.” 

When it comes to measuring a variety's impact on the marketplace, the old adage 'hindsight is 20/20' comes to mind. “It's pretty simple, looking back, to see the great ones and why they were great within their historical context,” says Zary. “Looking forward—looking at this year's seedlings and saying, 'Oh, that one is going to be around in 50 years,'—to me that is impossible.” In the short term, “If you have a novel color, a name that people can easily remember, and a good rose to go with it, it's going to stick around,” claims Carruth. 

Today, developers are pushing for larger and more fragrant flowers, along with breeding for very high levels of cold tolerance and disease resistance. Says Carruth, “All of us are working on disease resistance because of the rap that roses are hard to grow in the garden. We're trying to select for more naturally disease resistant varieties.” 

So how does the future look for roses? “Rosy,” chuckles Zary, before noting that rose breeders will eventually benefit from developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering. “Eventually you will see foreign genes—genes that are not naturally part of the rose—introduced to give it special characteristics," he says. What this brave new world will bring is anyone's guess. But one thing is for sure; somewhere in a greenhouse a future star is being born.