Sweet Tough Roses

Tough roses never smelled so sweet


"Black spot is my friend." Not a statement you expect from someone who breeds roses, and certainly not as enthusiastically as it's delivered by Ping Lim, rose breeder for Bailey Nurseries.

But it's difficult not to catch some of Lim's enthusiasm, black spot notwithstanding. And his enthusiasm for disease is because he must invite the worst into his trial beds to pick the best roses for our gardens.Gardeners want roses that are disease-resistant and generally good garden plants, with an attractive form and a fabulous fragrance. Recurrent or ever-blooming roses more than pay their way in the garden.

Those are the same things that Lim wants in a rose, but where we spend our time perusing a catalog or nursery aisle, Lim takes the goals more seriously.It takes up to 10 years before he can bring a promising seedling to market. First, he makes up to 35,000 crosses each year by choosing parents, each with characteristics that he would like to combine into one plant. The crosses result in a quarter-million seeds.

And he puts the new roses to the test, planting out trials in Sunnyside; Yamhill and Sauvie Island, Ore.; and St. Paul, Minn. During the trials, he tries to infect the plants with black spot. When it's your job to breed the best roses possible, then you must invite disease in and make it welcome where roses grow. It's the only way to find out which plants are susceptible and which are not.

"My boss says I have no budget for chemicals," Lim says, and so, during the evaluation, he looks for the most disease-resistant foliage. That way, we don't have to have a budget for chemicals, either. The rub for all rose breeders is that the characteristics of disease susceptibility and fragrance seem to be linked with an almost unbreakable chain. When you get rid of the susceptibility to black spot, often the heady perfume we long for goes with it.

But rose breeders, including Lim, soldier on, and often with pleasing results. The light scent and clean foliage of the Bailey introduction 'DayDream,' a small shrub rose, were two reasons it was selected as an All-American winner this year.Lim has other All-American winners: 'Love & Peace' in 2002 and -- coming soon -- 'Rainbow Sorbet' in 2006.

Bailey's Easy Elegance collection offers a robust selection of shrub, ground cover and climbing roses, some with more scent than others, but all with their own charm. 'Last Tango,' a medium red double-flowered shrub rose, has petals with a ruffled edge reminiscent of the flamboyant attire of ballroom dance contestants. You don't have to be a rosarian to want a rose or two like those in your garden. The fragrance, color and form of the flowers add romance and a blousy elegance to any plant combination.

That is, if the rose that grows in your garden is the one you, or someone before you, planted. When a grafted rose goes in the ground, there's a distinct possibility that the rootstock, which is supposed to stay underground, might take over.Lim jokes that " 'Dr. Huey' is the most popular rose in Minnesota." 'Dr. Huey,' introduced in 1920, is the most common rootstock used in rose grafting. It's an aggressive grower that is supposed to channel its energy into the top growth of the desired rose.

'Dr. Huey' is a scarlet-flowered, once-blooming climber; seen it around? It may well be one of the most "popular" roses in our region, too. Grafts fail for a variety of reasons; for example, a grafted rose could get caught in an unexpected freeze. Then, 'Dr. Huey' just might decide to take over. The result is that the rose you bought is gone.Many rose breeders and growers are now turning back to own-root roses so that what you buy is what you get.

Own-root roses have vast advantages over grafted roses, the No. 1 being that you never have to worry about a sprout from below ground. You plant the climber 'Tahitian Moon,' you get 'Tahitian Moon.' With breeders such as Ping Lim on the job, our work of finding good garden roses gets easier. He understands not only the value of the plant, but also the value of the emotion we invest.Ling's first rose love was 'Peace,' with which he became familiar when he was growing up in Laos. Roses have a strong hold on him, and it shows in his dedication and love for his work.

It's also evident when he's asked what he thinks gardeners want in a rose. He acknowledges that we all want a rose that repeats and has beauty, fragrance and color in the garden as well as in a bouquet. But just as important, he says, is that the rose carries a "sense of romance and serving memory."