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Too many roses, too little space. How often have we thought this, while going through the latest catalogs, seeing ‘new roses for 2003’ presentations, or browsing nursery web pages? Each new rose is presented with glowing prose and mouth-watering photographs.

Of course, almost all new roses are 'bloom factories,' 'vigorous,' and 'very resistant' when you hear the growers talk. Do your eyes glaze over with all the superlatives when you read new rose reviews? The problem is that this information is largely provided without context.

How often do we end up growing three roses to keep one? Independent of the hassle of removing the not-so-great ones after disappointment sets in, the replacements themselves take more years to fill in and prove themselves out, and you could be digging them out later as well. Better to pick the right varieties up front and save the money, time and trouble.

Compare and contrast

It occurred to me the other day, that when I describe a rose to someone I try to match it up with a rose I think they will be familiar with. "Looks like Touch of Class, but has more fragrance" for example, or ‘similar form to Olympiad, but deeper red.’ Personally, I tend to fit new things in amongst familiar ones, when I’m learning and I bet many others do also.

With perhaps 20,000 existing varieties already out there, three thousand of which are in commerce, one would think that the barrier for introducing a new rose would be very high. Someone must have thought this particular new introduction was different from all of those roses in some important way, and better somehow or they wouldn’t have introduced it. Right? Riiiight? Well, maybe, and maybe not.

The current wave of cost cutting is not limited to big corporations; a major constraint to new rose introductions is whether a new variety can be propagated on its own roots to save labor in the fields. Well, that’s OK, I guess, but it means that me-too varieties [from a rosarian’s perspective] that grow well on their own roots will have an advantage when growers decide on introductions from now on. Even before this current ‘own-root’ cycle, me-too roses have had other commercial advantages: the power of a catchy name, or a way to capitalize on (or avoid) licensing costs for patents and trademarks.

Thus, especially today, a relative comparison to a known rose would seem to be very useful when hearing about new varieties. If someone told you that ‘this new white Floribunda had more flowers than Iceberg, in our tests' or 'was more disease resistant than R. laevigata' wouldn’t that perk your ears?

Role of Reference Roses in New Rose Selections

By ‘reference roses’, I mean roses that are outstanding in most zones (say ARS rating of 8 or higher), very popular and currently in commerce. Roses like that are likely to be familiar to many people, and thus form a good basis for comparison. If each new variety were compared on a number of characteristics to a great existing rose of a similar type, wouldn’t it be easy to tell what the rose is going to be like? Wouldn’t that make choosing new plants easier?

The thought is that a reviewer of a rose (an AARS judge, e.g.) could be asked to compare a new rose of a given type (say, a deep red HT) with a reference rose of the same type (for argument's sake, say Mr. Lincoln) and give the differences. Thus, instead of hearing that a rose was 'very vigorous,' one might learn that the new variety was 'more vigorous than Mr. Lincoln.'

Hypothetical Review using a Reference Rose

Imagine a new deep red Hybrid Tea rose, "Rose A," is coming to market this year, and that Mister Lincoln was designated the deep red HT reference rose. Wouldn’t it be great to get a rose review like this:

"Rose A" deep red Hybrid Tea

Comparison of "Rose A" to dr HT Reference Rose Mister Lincoln

Plant Traits: ‘Rose A’ vs. Mr. Lincoln
VigorClear Dotsame
Plant sizeClear Dotshorter, wider
ThorninessClear Dotless thorny
Speed of repeatClear Dotquicker repeat
Cold HardinessClear Dotbetter
Bloom countClear Dotfewer

Bloom Traits: ‘Rose A’ vs. Mr. Lincoln
Cut flower durationClear Dotlonger
Flower duration on plantClear Dotlonger
FormClear Dotbetter show form
Bloom sizeClear Dotsmaller
FragranceClear Dotmore fragant
ColorClear Dotdarker red

Disease Resistance: ‘Rose A’ vs. Mr. Lincoln
RustClear Dotbetter
Black SpotClear Dotsame
Powdery MildewClear Dotsame

Other Comparisons: ‘Rose A’ vs. Mr. Lincoln
Lighter foliage, blooms hold up better in heat

I'd say that we'd know Rose A pretty well from that description, and most of us could make a pretty quick decision about whether we'd want it and if so, just which of our current roses it might replace!


Picture the advantages to our hobby if reference roses were designated and used for comparing new varieties. New as well as experienced rosarians would benefit by avoiding me-too roses. Better results with the better varieties would help increase the joy of roses across the country. Further, hybridizers and introducers would know what the target was: any new introductions that didn’t compare well to the reference varieties on some important trait would be harder to sell; the quality bar would be raised as far back as seedling evaluations. Eventually, when all the new introductions were ‘better’ than the reference rose on all characteristics, a new, higher quality standard could be chosen and the bar raised still further.

Getting Started

Reference Rose Designation: Since most of the new rose introductions seem to be one of five modern types (HT, FL, GR, Mini, Shrub) I think the need for reference roses is probably the highest there. Much as I love the OGRs, they are not being introduced in large quantities so the need for screening new introductions is not as keen. Further, the diversity of the OGRs and debate over the categorizations would greatly complicate that endeavor. Thus, I think there should be a reference rose chosen for each of the those five types, for the major color classes and major color combination (red/yellow, red/white, red/pink, etc.).

Stabilizing the list of characteristics: We also would need to come up with the list of characteristics to compare. The example above could be used as a starting point for discussions, but refinement is clearly needed.

Disease Resistance: an exception?

One refinement occurs; what would the best comparison for resistance? We could put more emphasis on disease resistance by comparing new roses’ resistance to a variety known to be extremely resistant, rather than a reference rose in its class which might or might not be very resistant. For example, if Mister Lincoln were a reference rose, it would not be hard for many varieties to be ‘better than reference rose’ on rust resistance. Thus, it may be better to designate one highly-resistant variety for each major disease, and comparing all roses’s resistance to them to them.

Possible Side Effects: 'And Then What?'

One effect, as noted above, could be to reduce the number of new roses commercially introduced. But if the introduced roses were the better ones, would we miss the rest? Arguably diversity is a good thing, but with 20,000 varieties and species in Modern Roses X it may be that we don’t need to go for diversity, at the cost of adding me-too varieties.

Another possible effect could be convergence of breeding activities. If everyone shoots at the same targets, wouldn’t most of the results be similar? This would be regrettable. If the disease was too many me-too introductions, the cure shouldn’t inhibit the production of truly unique roses. There will always be a need for unique plants, and these should be encouraged. Mossy miniatures, dahlia-flowered roses, halos, micro-minis, ground covers, new varieties of the OGR classes, and the list goes on and on. My sense is that a truly unique rose will get the reception it deserves; that rosarians know a truly new thing when they see it.

Putting it into Practice

Of course, this idea may not be completely practical. To work, we would need to get a set of standard roses defined, and get them established in the test gardens so comparisons can be done easily. And, resistance and inertia can be strong brakes to changes of this sort; as one very knowledgeable rosarian told me when considering this idea, "Joel, this could cut new rose introductions by half." Of course, the half that would be cut would be those we’d probably be digging out three years hence...would that be such a bad thing?

Last updated: 3/7/09
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