Friday, November 2, 2012 13 comments

Growing rose seeds for fun and profit

The shrub Carefree Beauty was a seed parent for the wildly successful Knock Out

With few exceptions, the roses we know and love today start out life as a humble seed. Each one that grows produces a completely unique flower, and no one can accurately predict whether it will be a winner or a dud.

Hybridizer Bill Radler had been working for 15 years to develop a new line of disease resistant, easy-care roses. Little did he know the solitary seed harvested from a single hip from a straggly bush he almost trashed would grow up to be Knock Out.
Pink Knock Out is a "sport" of Double Knock Out

Of course professional hybridizers have the edge on amateurs when it comes to producing a really special rose. The process is tedious, lengthy and painstaking. 

Roses are cross-pollinated, hips are allowed to form and the resulting seeds are planted and closely observed. Then comes more cross breeding, more hips, more seeds and for the most part, disappointment.

The popular Graham Thomas was one of Evelyn's parents
For example, every year the folks at David Austin English Roses plant approximately 150,000 seeds. After several years, most of the seedlings will get the thumb’s down for one reason or another (Mr. Austin still makes the final decision.) 

In time, perhaps three to five roses from the original planting will ever make it into commerce. Now I’m no math genius, but the odds of coming up with a keeper seem pretty low to me.

Is the next Peace rose is in your garden?

Originally called '3-35-40', Peace has chalked up 100 million in sales

Most of us don’t have the expertise or inclination to set up a proper rose hybridizing program, but it’s still fun to plant a few seeds and see what happens. 

This time of year I scout around for hips that are red or orange and bring them inside to harvest the precious seeds inside.

(Next year, stop deadheading your plants in late summer and let the volunteer pollinators take over. With a bit of luck, the bees will do their thing and soon fruit or hips will begin forming on your bushes.)

Giving seeds the water treatment.

Although you’ll probably never pinpoint the  “father” of your new rose, you should know the female parent, so keep each group of hips separate to identify later.

Granada x Garden Party resulted in the favorite Double Delight
Cut the hips open with a knife, remove the seeds, wipe them clean, and drop them in a glass of water. Old timers say seeds that float won’t germinate as well as those that sink.

Discard the floaters and wrap the remaining seeds in a handful of moist vermiculite or peat moss  -- even damp paper towels can work. Place the mix in a plastic zip bag and write the name of the seed parent on the outside of the bag with an indelible marker.

Seeds need cold temperatures to initiate the germination process, so place all the bags in the veggie crisper drawer of your fridge for about 60 days. Mark your calendar so you know when it’s time to take them out.

Countdown to bloom time.

There are many ways to plant the seeds once they finish their long winter’s nap. I’ve sown mine under grow lights in cheap plastic shoeboxes with a couple inches of sterile soil. Plant seeds about ¼ inch below the soil surface. Make sure indoor temperatures are at least 70 degrees and keep the lights on for about 16 hours.

Two unnamed seedlings produced Louisville Lady
 In areas of the country where spring temperatures are above 70 degrees, you can plant them in flats and set them outside. Whichever method you try, be sure to keep the soil moist, but not dripping wet.

When the seedlings begin to grow, the first two leaves that appear are cotyledons. The next leaf will look like a rose. Amazingly, many of these seedlings will flower in as little as 5 to 6 weeks, although some take a full season to bloom.

 If you like what you see when your seedling does bloom, carefully transplant the new rose into a separate pot. Within three years you should have a fully mature bush and a never-before-seen variety.

 It may never achieve Knock Out status, but since you grew it, I promise you will love it.


After writing this posting I ran across a quote from the diary of Frances Meilland. He and his father Antoine 'Papa' Meilland hybridized Peace and first recognized its potential to be one of the greats. 
The McCartney Rose
The Meilland's rose farms were destroyed during World War II and it was the proceeds from the sale of Peace that allowed them begin again and create beautiful roses including Bonica, Carefree Beauty and The McCartney Rose to this day.

"How strange to think that all these millions of rose bushes sprang from one tiny seed no bigger than the head of a pin, a seed which we might so easily have overlooked, or neglected in a moment of inattention."

Strange, indeed. But also amazing and wonderful.