Amateur Rose Hybridizer Wins AARS Jackpot
"When I started doing this 11 years ago I was going to create two roses that I could name after my granddaughters, Amanda and Heidi." And so, Frank Strickland was inspired to begin a hybridizing program that led to the coveted AARS (All-America Rose Selections) Award for 1996 for his yellow-blend Hybrid Tea, St. Patrick.
Back in the mid-1970's, Frank's interest in roses was initiated by a desire to remove five dying rose bushes that had come with the house in San Bernardino. His wife's reaction took him by surprise: "Della just came out of her skin! When I realized how much she liked roses, I decided to plant some decent rose bushes for her. Really, I had an ulterior motive, because I wanted to dig up the old ones they were really the worst I've ever seen." Still, she would not allow removal of the old invalids until she was satisfied with the new arrivals.
At first, Frank didn't care much for the thorny rose bushes. "Then I found myself starting to look at them more often, picking one for Della and bringing it in."
A member of Frank's church had been bringing large bouquets of roses to church every Sunday, and Frank finally asked him how he grew such magnificent blooms. He was amazed when he visited the gentleman's garden of 300 rose bushes. Harold Brown was a member (and still is) of the Inland Valley Rose Club and invited Frank to join.
The first rose society meeting Frank attended was the annual pruning demonstration. Although his own pruning had already been done, he learned enough to go back and reprune his eight bushes.
Frank and his four children had been growing vegetables in a little plot in the backyard. Of course, the vegetable garden gradually gave way to the roses, of which there are now 200 in the ground.
After the children grew up, Frank and Della found time for exhibiting roses, and did very well. Since the early 1980's, they have won about 15 Queens of Show, scoring both Hybrid Tea and Miniature Queens at one district show.
In 1984 Frank experimented with rose hybridizing, but all of his crosses, made early in the season, failed. The following year he tried again, continuing his efforts into the second bloom cycle, which proved to be more productive. By 1986, he had decided to do most hybridizing from May 15th to June 15th, a period that seemed to yield the most seeds and the highest rate of germination. That year, he included a few crosses of Brandy (seed parent) x Gold Medal (pollen parent), not knowing that Brandy is generally considered to be non-productive as a seed parent. He had looked at the parentage of both roses, examined the attributes each had to offer, and decided, "they'd make great parents, so I gave them a try. I refer to that as the 'intuitive process.'"
Only one hip remained on Brandy to full maturity, which produced a small seedling whose heavy bloom bent the stem over. "When it opened up it was very 'cabbagy' and didn't impress me, but I kept it because I only had a few seedlings that year. (That was the first year that I had any real success so I was saving what I had.) Then I put it into a bigger pot and the next spring it shot out a stem with a large bloom on it. It opened up and that was the first time I really saw St. Patrick. It didn't even look like the same seedling. I thought, 'Gee, that's really nice.' It took a year to impress me."
After growing the seedling on its own roots in the garden for a couple of years, Frank asked Tom Carruth of Weeks Roses to take a look at the rose while it was in full bloom. "I knew I had something that was pretty good because his eyes popped out the first time he saw it." Tom took some budwood that day and sent it to the growers in Wasco to be budded to rootstock and tested in the growing fields.
Weeks Roses was so impressed, that the rose was sent to the AARS (All-American Rose Selections) Trials to compete for the highest honor in rosedom. After two years of evaluation, the vote was taken and St. Patrick made the grade. Tom Carruth, who was included in the panel of judges, went straight to the phone to call Frank with the news.
After the AARS winners are decided, the introducer must supply budwood to the other nurseries. It takes two years to produce enough stock to meet the demand for the triumphant rose. In the meantime, all is kept very secretive; only insiders know in advance what roses have been crowned and which hybridizers will wear that crown.
Until now, only one amateur had achieved that distinction since the AARS program was begun in 1940 Carl Meyer, for Portrait in 1972. (Jerry Twomey's roses have won two AARS Awards, but he is considered an "independent" rather than an amateur hybridizer, for all of his botanical background and training.)
People have exclaimed to Frank, "Boy, are you lucky!" Others have said, "Well, it was fate." But Frank believes, "Any person who does a lot of gardening enjoys it for a certain reason. I get a really good feeling working in the garden. So I consider this rose a blessing, instead of luck or fate."
Whether it was luck, fate, or Heaven's hand, Frank's success did require some effort. Starting in April, he lightly prunes his rose bushes to time the bloom cycle for the "magic month of June," the most fruitful period for a California rose hybridizer. In planning what crosses to make, he concerns himself less with parentage than with hybridizers' lines. "I have this notion in my head that I should cross roses that are hybridized by different hybridizers. In other words, cross McGredy's roses with Kordes' roses, and cross them with Herb Swim's roses, and so on. It's like breeding horses they use thoroughbreds. So what you're doing is taking all the roses that are thoroughbreds, that have all the good traits in them (now especially disease resistance) and seeing if they will pass that on to their offspring. This is as much a thing of experimentation and discovery as it is intelligent planning and knowing what to look for."
His goal is to produce 3,000 rose seeds in a season, although it is so difficult to judge that he once came up with 6,000 seeds, which yielded 1,400 seedlings. Though he manages to reduce the quantity by careful observation in the first year, he usually has so many plants growing in his 12' x 12' greenhouse that he actually hybridizes every other year. This way he can give his seedlings adequate space and a fair chance to prove themselves. Frank has a real appreciation for the recipients of his labor: "The more I do this, the greater respect I have for modern Hybrid Tea roses, for their disease resistance, their vigor, and the number of blooms the results they give us for all of our hard work."
The award-winning St. Patrick will be registered as a yellow-blend. Most rosarians already know that its outer petals are yellow-green, which is being emphasized in the upcoming advertising. But Frank says, "I think the rose has more to offer than the green. In full bloom, it can show all the lemon-lime, the yellow, and the orange-gold at the center. Plus, it's really disease-resistant and is great in hot weather. This is going to be the best yellow that ever hit Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico they will love it. In 100-degree heat its blooms have a 'chrome' quality; it seems to reflect sunlight and enable the rose to bloom in the heat without fading or burning great substance in the petals." Until now, these qualities have eluded hybridizers' efforts to combine them with the yellow rose.
St. Patrick is now being tested in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Japan, and the south of France warm areas where the rose should perform well.
In America, the name of the champion rose was chosen by the introducing nursery, Weeks Roses. However, at Tom Carruth's suggestion, the code name for St. Patrick is 'WEKamanda,' in honor of Frank's granddaughter, his original inspiration. All in all, he is very pleased with the name. "I've gone out and bought books about St. Patrick and read all about him. He's a great guy!" And even though the commercial name may be changed in another country, the code name cannot be changed and will follow the rose forever.
Frank has one other registered rose, a shimmering pink Hybrid Tea, Spring Break (the code name 'STRaheidi' honors his other granddaughter). Coiner Nursery has had this rose for some time, wavering on the decision to introduce it. Some call it an "exhibitor's rose;" it has won two Queens at recent rose shows but can have a rather rangy growth habit. It has just won a Silver Medal at the ARS Trial Grounds, so it will be made available on a limited basis this coming bareroot season.
Frank claims he has no other roses that lookspromising just now. "It's hard to come up with a good one. Tom [Carruth] is testing another rose that I have, but it really mildews horribly up there at Wasco, so I think that's the end of that one."
He does have a few home-bred roses that are good enough to include in his breeding program. Though the blooms may not be outstanding, the rosebushes are vigorous, have good disease resistance and quality parentage, so he will use them as pollen parents to see what they can produce. "As an amateur, you're really working with small numbers, but some traits might pop out at you and you just go with that."
Although Frank Strickland has produced the two roses he had wanted to name after his granddaughters, he finds he cannot retire from hybridizing yet. Two more granddaughters, Jillian and Justine, have been added to the Strickland clan. Frank quips, "I never thought of that when I started. This could go on forever!"
© Copyright 2012 Kathy DeRoo. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in "Rose Ecstasy," bulletin of Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, Kitty Belendez, Editor.
Photos © Copyright by Kitty Belendez
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