Ralph Moore
Pioneer of Rose Breeding Frontiers

By Kathy DeRoo

All photos Copyright Kitty Belendez.

POST SCRIPT: Ralph Moore passed away during 2009 at the age of 102. His Sequoia Nursery closed in 2009.

In 1852, 3-year-old Amelia Reynolds traveled with her family by covered wagon 3,000 miles from Massachusetts to settle in Tulare County, California. That pioneer spirit lives on in her grandson, Ralph Moore, who has become known as the Grandfather of the American Miniature Rose.

Over the course of more than a half century, Ralph has created over 300 varieties of miniature roses, winning 18 Awards Of Excellence and the ARS Gold Medal Certificate for the red-blend Toy Clown (the only GM ever awarded to a miniature rose). He has been honored by many rose societies and garden clubs, both here and abroad, including the American Rose Society's Gold Honor Medal in 1982, for service to the rose.

Ralph's interest in roses began with his mother's small rose garden at their home, which was located just 10 miles northeast of the Sequoia Nursery of today. They moved from there in 1910 when Ralph was just 3 years old, but he still remembers going down a few steps to his mother's little garden. She grew quite a lot of roses at their new home, some of which Ralph grows to this day, such as Paul Neyron and Safrano.

When he was still a boy, Ralph's father (himself a pioneer of the citrus industry) gave him a little plot of ground where he grew a few vegetables that he sold to a local market.

He planted his first roses at the age of 14, and his grandfather taught him to root cuttings by simply sticking the cuttings in the ground. When his roses developed hips, young Ralph harvested the seeds and grew a new crop of roses.

He became interested in the work of Luther Burbank, horticulturist and plant breeder of the turn-of-the-century era, whose most famous creation is the Shasta Daisy. At 18, Ralph bought Burbank's books (which he still owns) and learned a great deal about breeding techniques and philosophy.

In 1937 Ralph Moore opened Sequoia Nursery in Visalia, CA, a general plant nursery specializing in roses. He began a vigorous breeding program, always looking for something new and unusual, working with Miniatures at a time when they were considered little more than a novelty.

By 1957 the nursery had become an all-miniature rose business, although Ralph continued to breed other types of plants as well (for instance, he recently created the first double-flowered crepe myrtle).

He produced a climbing miniature rose with small pink blooms that he called Zee, which was never introduced into commerce, but was used extensively in his breeding program. Virtually every climbing miniature rose bred by Ralph Moore has Zee in its pedigree.

Ralph claims that the story that Rouletti is at the beginning of all miniature roses is a myth. Moore's Minis are all based on the genes of Oakington Ruby, a red "Mini", discovered in England in 1933. Ralph believes that "it's probably pure China, and the modern Miniature rose didn't begin until about 1937."

With an eye for the unusual, Moore has spent a great many years working with an individual trait. It took 25 years of careful hybridizing before he was able to introduce Kara in 1973, the first repeat-blooming mini-moss rose (growing a full complement of "furry" prickles on stems, sepals, and leaves). He has spent 29 years working with crested roses (those with a lacy frill on the sepals), but still has not quite reached his objective.

In more recent years, Ralph Moore began work with various other distinctive features. The white species rose, R. sericea pteracantha produces red, semi-transparent thorns on its new growth; "I'm interested in making some hybrids of it; I'd like to get that characteristic in a more dwarf plant with 'other-colored' flowers on it. So far, we haven't had any luck but we keep learning how to use some of these things." A plant he calls English Sweetbriar Rose exudes the fragrance of green apples from its leaves when touched, another quirk he is attempting to incorporate into the rose. And he is beginning to see some success at putting a ruffle on the edge of the petals that almost makes them appear serrated; "It's hard to get [the ruffling] because so many of them are sterile."

Ralph says that hybridizing is "not a thing where you can punch out so many copies. But if you know what you're after, you select for that [trait] or you cross for it. To make real progress, you need to run parallel lines, maybe more than two, but let them parallel so you can bring them together." By making several different crosses with the idea of crossing the progeny, Ralph performs linebreeding to perfect the desired characteristics.

It was in this manner that he created his Halo series of single-petaled miniature roses (Halo Dolly, Halo Star, etc.), depending on several crosses to Anytime to produce the red circle around the yellow stamens in the center of the blooms.

He began breeding striped roses when he discovered the genetic source to be Ferdinand Pichard, a pink and red striped Hybrid Perpetual. Previously, striped roses were unstable sports which would often revert to the original plant. Others were striped due to a virus that causes a color break on the petal. In neither case are the stripes inherited. Since the virus cannot be passed from the male parent to the seedling, using the pollen of a striped rose to produce striped seedlings proves that it is a genetic characteristic.

In 1976 Moore's red and white Stars 'n' Stripes was the first striped Miniature brought on the market, and in 1985, his Pinstripe, also red and white, was introduced. Both have been good producers of striped roses, although Ralph prefers to use Pinstripe for its tighter growth habit and fuller blooms.

Moore continues to work with many uncommon combinations. "I'm interested in [making crosses with] the Rugosas; I think those have been neglected. They could bring disease resistance, novelty, and so on, into roses." Miniatures work well with the Rugosas because their number of chromosomes match. The Mini is used as the seed parent "because the Rugosa overpowers the Mini; I figured if we got a cross onto a Miniature we'd know we had a cross." (The seedlings receive half of their chromosomes from each parent, so in that respect, it doesn't matter which of the chosen parent roses is the seed parent.) Moore's Linda Campbell and Topaz Jewel (both Hybrid Rugosas) resulted from such crosses.

Similarly, Ralph is crossing species roses and OGRs with Minis. "These offspring are similar in some ways to the Austin roses, but they're much smaller plants, the kind you could grow in a container or small garden. I've got one that's like Paul Neyron on a dwarf plant." Not yet ready for market, it is still in the testing phase.

One of his newest offerings to the marketplace is the Floribunda, Blastoff. It is a flashy red-orange with white reverse, a cross of Orangeade (FL) and Little Artist (Min). The longlasting blooms come in large clusters; one spray makes a bouquet! Weeks Roses will introduce it this winter in bareroot form.

Ralph has discovered a climbing sport of Playgirl which has the same vibrant pink, single-petaled blooms and semi-glossy foliage. He plans to introduce it himself at Sequoia Nursery for '94-'95.

Another sport that he hopes to introduce this year is called Little Mermaid, a climbing miniature rose, believed to be a root sport of the climbing OGR (HBc), Mermaid. A fire had burned the full-sized plant off, and Little Mermaid came up, a diminutive version of the original, its yellow single-petaled blooms measuring 2 inches in diameter.

A new striped climbing rose that is 3/4 Dortmund as a result of linebreeding, is currently rated very highly in the AARS Trials with one more year to go (climbers are rated over a 3-year period). Ralph is obviously proud of this red and pink striped, large-flowered climber. Rose fanciers who have seen it in the test gardens are already inquiring as to where and when it will become available.

There is a pink with green outer petals that, up to now, defies classification: "It's got some Mini in it and some of Sam McGredy's hand-painted roses in it; it's not exactly a Floribunda, a Miniature, or a Shrub  it's not exactly anything!" Moore likes it for arrangements, and some mail order nurseries are interested in introducing it as a novelty.

Ralph believes that the rose of the future is the shrub. "A shrub rose will grow with a minimum of care: you can prune it with the hedge shears and you never need to spray. It will give you lots of flowers with 6 to 10-inch stems; that's big enough for your coffee table, dining table, or anything else. So to me, that's going to be the rose of the future."

At the age of 87 [in 2008 he turned 101], Ralph continues his exploration of the rose and all its secrets. Many of his innovative creations have become "springboards" for other hybridizers' work. Indeed, as Webster's New World Dictionary defines "pioneer" as "one who goes before, preparing the way for others," Ralph Moore is truly one of the great Pioneers of the Rose.

© Copyright 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

For questions about Santa Clarita Valley Rose Society, contact:
Kitty Belendez

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Updated March 1, 2014

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