Yet more roses and some updates

Queen Maxima of The Netherlands named a new rose (after herself) at the 50th celebration of the Rosarium Winschoten on June 13.

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Rosa Queen Maxima. Photo: Hans Homburg for the Netherlands Rose Society.

The Rosarium shows more than 20,000 roses of 320 different species during the summer months. During spring visitors can enjoy 7000 rhododendrons in flower. Winschoten is in the northern province of Gronigen (where the explorer Abel Tasman was born). A Rose Festival will be held on July 1 and 2.

Submissions to the New Zealand exhibition of botanical art, being shown as part of the debut Worldwide Day of Botanical Art next year, close on November 17. The exhibition will take place at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardensfrom March 30 to July 1, 2018. Find the New Zealand submission information here.

Chelsea Flower Show’s Plant of the Year for 2017 is a dwarf mulberry, ‘Charlotte Russe’, from 89-year-old Japanese plant breeder Hajime Matsunaga. It has taken more than 40 years for Matsunaga-san to create the compact bush that fruits over a long season – 30 years of hybridising and then a decade of propagating before the plant arrived in Europe to be turned into commercial quantities – as it was, the UK supplier’s first batch of 2,500 plants was sold out in a week!

‘Charlotte Russe’ fruits in its first year and subsequently on new and old wood. It is self-fertile.

Runner-up was Salvia ‘Chrystal Blue’. Spreading to 45cm and flowering at 60cm high, the plant has a neat, compact habit topped with light sky-blue flowers. And third was a floriferous hibiscus with eye-catching orange flowers, ‘Petit Orange’. See the full shortlist.

The Chatsworth Garden Show is a new RHS event (held at the stately Derbyshire home of the Duke of Devonshire), read a review here.

And, finally, read about one of the most venomous plants in the world – the Gympie-Gympie stinging tree (Dendrocnide excelsa) from, you guessed it, Australia, a place seemingly full of things that can kill you!

Rose breeder honoured

Tauranga area rose breeder Rob Somerfield has added another major honour to his cabinet with a Plant Raisers’ Award from the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture.

Presented with the medal at last month’s combined conference of the RNZIH and the International Plant Propagators Society, Rob’s award was for four of his roses – Scent to Remember, Pacific Glory, Looking Good and Christchurch Remembers.


Rob Somerfield and the produce from one of his trial beds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The award is granted to a nominated person or organisation “who has raised in New Zealand a cultivar considered to be sufficiently meritorious”, according to the RNZIH website. Plants need to have been in cultivation for at least 3 years, to have been bred from seed (ie, not a sport) and to have been registered with an international authority.

“I don’t do it to get recognised,” Rob said today of his breeding efforts. “So I was quite shocked when I got a call from [RNZIH president] Keith Hammett. This one is important because it’s your peers voting.”

Rob was surprised to be told by Hayden Foulds of the NZ Rose Society that he had released 33 roses. “I didn’t think it would be so many.”

Past recipients of the Plant Raisers’ Award include Terry Dowdeswell (delphiniums, 2016), Peter Cave (magnolias, 2009), Mark Jury (magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons, 2007) and Jack Hobbs (hebes and leptospermums, 1990). Read the full list of awards.

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Christchurch Remembers, bred by Rob Somerfield. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rob, 56, has been “tinkering” with roses since 1983, turning his hobby into a business in 1998 on the back of his first commercial release, Blackberry Nip which that year won the Silver Star award at the National Rose Trial grounds in Palmerston North – the highest award for an amateur breeder. The trials are for roses that have not been commercially released in New Zealand with assessment taking place over 2 years.

“It’s hard being a nobody and trying to release a rose,” he says. “If I hadn’t had Blackberry Nip and then had a follow up [Kaimai Sunset] that was also accepted well I may not have made it. It’s almost unheard of that a breeder’s first rose is a big success.”

Since then, Rob’s Glenavon Roses, based at Te Puna near Tauranga, has won the trial’s top award six times, footing it with names such as Harkness (UK), Dickson (Northern Ireland), Delbard (France) and Carruth (US).

“When I release a rose I honestly don’t get that excited,” he says. “It’s nice to have done it, and it’s nice when they win awards, but every rose represents 10 years’ work. By the time it comes on the market I’m well on to the next thing.”

He still has a way to go to be crowned New Zealand’s most successful rose breeder – that title belongs to the revered Sam McGredy. However, Sam has called Rob “New Zealand’s great hope”, a compliment that’s underlined by a steady accumulation of awards, while Rob credits Sam as an inspiration and values the freely given advice he has received over the years.

Rob also enters the annual Pacific Rose Bowl Festival at the Rogers Rose Gardens in Hamilton, enjoying the opportunity to see what the general public thinks of his work – the awards are decided by public vote.

“I’m always pleased to win the Children’s Choice award,” he says. “Youngsters judge in a very pure way. They’re not thinking about plant health, the size of the bush or whether it will flower again. They just like what they like.”

Little Miss Perfect wowed Rose Bowl visitors in 2014 with its heavy crop of coral blooms but almost didn’t make it to release because Rob ignored one of his own dictates – colour isn’t important. The compact bush was to be mowed out when a staff member remarked it was always in bloom and didn’t have disease issues.

“For me the most important thing in a rose is health and everything else comes after that – plant size, number of blooms and speed of repeat flowering, with colour almost unimportant because it’s so subjective,” Rob says. “I try not to be affected by it. I reckon if you get the plant right, customers can decide if they like the flower. But I made the mistake of not liking the colour and almost lost a great little plant.”

Scent to Remember was named by Waipuna Hospice at Te Puna. Photo: Rob Somerfield Roses

Rose growers may pity Rob having his business in the Tauranga area’s hot, humid (and sometimes very wet) summers but he reckons it gives him an advantage.

“Anything that is healthy here will do well anywhere. Gardeners aren’t prepared to stake and spray roses so field trials let me assess all parts of the plant. It’s almost a gut feeling about what’s going to be good when you look at them in the glasshouse but you learn so much more about the plant when it’s outside.”

What about perfume, that most desired of rose traits? “Unfortunately, perfume often goes hand-in-hand with poor health. If you increase the health of a plant, the fragrance goes down.

“Everyone expects red roses to be perfumed but so few are. A chemist told me that rose scents are made up of about 200 different compounds and that different noses pick them up at different rates. To me, if you’re calling something fragrant you’ve got to be able to smell it a metre away.”

Rob has been involved with horticulture all his life – his parents have had a well-known berry farm near Tauranga since 1972 – but it was visits to his grandparents’ dairy farm at Motueka that began his love of roses.

“It wasn’t a lightning bolt or anything, but I was fascinated by the roses my grandfather had, watching them unfurl a little more each day.” He was given his first rose bushes in his late teens and upon leaving school worked for a nursery to learn grafting and budding. “I would bud up plants for myself if I couldn’t get something and the plants did well enough to encourage me to continue.”

Picking up a 2005 award at the Westbroekpark International Rose Trial Grounds in The Netherlands emphasised that rose-breeding was what he should be doing. “The world really watches that one.” Cherry-red Summerfield was the first New Zealand rose not bred by Sam McGredy to win there and Rob is still considering a New Zealand release of the rose, albeit under a different name.

The plant was named by trial ground officials and Rob admits names are something he sweated over at first, although has got better and now has the help of his family. “The name is always the last thing I do,” he says. “It was the same with my kids! For roses it’s got to be something that you say once and it will be remembered.”

Looking Good is named for, and benefits, the cancer charity Look Good Feel Better. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Although he still uses established descriptive terms such as ‘floribunda’ and ‘hybrid tea’ when talking to rosarians, Rob believes the general public’s demand for more blooms more often is sending these distinctions to oblivion, especially with the advent of roses that aren’t easily categorised, such as Flower Carpet.

Rob started using Flower Carpet roses, “virtually bullet-proof in terms of disease and they pack on a lot of flowers”, in his breeding a few years ago and is now working with some of the resulting crosses, several generations removed, as parent plants.

“Inspiration for crosses usually comes when I’m sitting on the tractor so I hop off and write it down,” he says. “We sometimes have family conversations around an idea someone’s had but a rose has to be something special for me to introduce it into the breeding programme.

“I didn’t start breeding roses to make money, which is probably just as well. Sam is a real marketer and that’s the difference between us. I’m a plant person and tend to want to let my roses do the talking for me. But I love being asked questions and so I guess I’m opinionated too.

“I take a lot of pride in what I release and won’t put my name to anything I’m not happy with.”

Pacific Glory. Photo: Sandra Simpson

As well as intentional crosses, the occasional sport (a genetic mutation where a plant reverts to a gene in its background with usually just one attribute changing) also turns up, such as  Climbing Blackberry Nip, which is a sport of Rob’s bush rose of the same name.

He’s been working towards a green rose – Lemon ’n’ Lime was a step towards that – and believes he may have something marketable but wants to release it overseas first. “To market overseas you’ve really got to be there twice a year and having a young family made that impossible. But the kids are older now so we’ll see what happens.”

He’s also chasing a red hybrid tea rose that combines fragrance with health and has his eye on breeding a subtle “hint of” lavender rose – the colour is big in Japan and the United States.

“I’ve always been fascinated by lavender in roses, I don’t know why. But the plants tend to be unhealthy so getting the colour I want and the health together is the challenge.

“Every year I look forward to trying to make tiny improvements or breed from something in particular – and then something else appears and I follow that. My breeding is a web of inter-related things that I don’t want to – well, I don’t think I can – stop exploring. I often wish I was a full-time breeder to follow every little inkling but in reality our bread and butter is the nursery production.

“I’m after perfection in a rose – and see so much room for improvement – but know I’m never going to get it. It’s like a drug and I’m hooked into it. I hope I can keep breeding roses until the day I die.”

A selection of Rob’s winners:

NZ Rose Trials: Gold Star of the South Pacific: Quintessential (2016), Fireball (2015), Christchurch Remembers (2014), Love Heart (2009), Sunline (2007), Pacific Glory (2006). Silver Star of the City of Palmerston North: Blackberry Nip (1998). Certificates of Merit: Purple Pizzazz (2016), Shangri-la, Jack Frost (2015), Hot Topic, Eye Candy (both 2014), Scott Base (2013), Looking Good (2012), St Mary’s Rose, Wild Cherry (2011), Lemon ‘n’ Lime, Diamond Design ( 2010), Picotee (2009), Golden Gift (2007), White Romance (2005).

Pacific Rose Bowl Festival: 2016: Christchurch Remembers (Rose of the Year, Best Floribunda, Children’s Choice, Best NZ-raised Rose), Sunline (Best HT), Double Fragrance (Most Fragrant). 2015: Looking Good (Rose of the Year, Best Floribunda, Best NZ-raised Rose, Children’s Choice), Double Fragrance (Best Climber). 2014: Love Heart (Rose of the Year), Picotee (Children’s Choice), Little Miss Perfect (Best Floribunda). 2013: Wild Cherry (Rose of the Year, Best Floribunda, Best NZ-raised Rose, Children’s Choice). 2012: Climbing Blackberry Nip (Most Fragrant, Best Climber), Star Quality (Children’s Choice).

Most of this article was first published in NZ Gardener and appears here with permission.

Postcard from Iran: Roses

Every year in the second half of May a festival of roses and rosewater is held in Kashan, between Tehran and Isfahan. Unfortunately, we were too early for that but did get to see a small rosewater distillery where a kind young woman answered the questions of curious foreigners.

Explaining the rosewater distillation process and what the store’s ‘tonic waters’ (including rose, mint and cinnamon) are used for. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The store’s distillery waiting to come on line. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Read a fascinating article about the rosewater tradition in the Kashan area. The town’s other claim to fame is that, as recorded for the West by Marco Polo, one of the Magi (Three Wise Men) was from Kashan, while the three of them are buried side by side in Saveh, northwest of Tehran.

The rose used for rosewater and perfume is Rosa damascene (Damask rose), known as the Mohammadi rose in these parts. Crusader ­Robert de Brie is believed to have brought the plant to Europe from Syria in the 13th century, hence its name, but the origins of roses are lost in the mists of time so it’s not outlandish to think the plant may have originated from Persia. R. damascene is a natural hybrid of R. gallica, R. moschata and R. fedtschenkoana. Sadly, the violent upheavals in Syria have affected the rose-farming tradition there.

A delicate climbing pink rose snapped at the Museum of Glass and Ceramics in Tehran. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Some roses definitely from Iran are the double R. foetida persiana, ‘Persian yellow’, which allowed European breeders to begin hybridising yellow shades, unknown until then, R. canina (dog rose, called Nastran in Farsi), while the beautiful R. Ispahan is named for the equally enchanting Persian city of Isfahan. Read an earlier posting about R. persica, once not considered a rose.

We saw many Banksia roses, native to China, looking lovely as they spilled masses of yellow flowers over walls and arbours.

This pretty, small rose, which our guide said is called the Seven-colour Rose in Farsi, was planted everywhere. The colour of flower changes as it ages and each flower has a different ratio and spread of colour. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Busy Friday or not, deliveries of roses keep coming to the beautiful Eram Garden in Shiraz. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Eram Garden is named after one of the four gardens of Paradise and on a sunny spring afternoon it felt a bit like being in Heaven! The site, which dates from 1823 in its current form, is now also a botanical garden and nominated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

A blooming good show in front of the house (not open) in Eram Garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Roses feature on this tiled panel in the Nasir al-Molk mosque in Shiraz, also known as the pink mosque. And yes, that is a church painted into the vase decoration, apparently inspired by the artist’s visit to Russia. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Ancient trees: Postcard from Iran

Seeing as how the actual postcards I sent from Iran haven’t arrived yet (posted 5 weeks ago) I thought I may as well drop an e-postcard to you, dear reader.

Iran was the most magnificent place – friendly people, delicious food and the most wonderful things to see, whether it be ancient archaeological sites, historic gardens, religious/ royal architecture, the eye-watering National Jewels Museum or a stroll through the bazaar. The country’s history is extremely long and complicated but having a knowledgeable and articulate guide, with a sense of humour, is a big help.

Go now, you won’t regret it. (We travelled with Golden Compass which operates out of New Zealand, Australia and the UK.)

The Cupresses sempiverans at Arbarkuh, the oldest tree in Iran at an estimated 4,000 years – and the oldest living thing in Asia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The age I’ve quoted in the caption comes from a Russian scientist and appears on a sign in the small park surrounding the tree, although a Japanese scientist has reportedly calculated the tree to be 8,000 years old!

One story has the tree planted by Japheth one of Noah’s sons (Yafeth bin Nuh in Islam), while another is that it was planted by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), the founder of the Zoroastrian religion. In old Persia/Iran the ‘sarv’ (cypress) was revered as a tree of life because it stays green all year long and its iconography pops up in mosques and gardens, and it is often planted in or near cemeteries.

A tiled cypress at the entry to the Shahzade Garden at Mahan, near Kerman. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I understand (but may be wrong) that the nakhl carried in Ashura processions are traditionally made from cypress wood – the nakhl represents the funerary casket of Hussain, the third imam of the Shia religion and grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed in battle in AD 680. Men carry the nakhl on their shoulders in the procession.

The nakhl of the village of Abyaneh, near Natanz, stored on a covered terrace. Photo: Sandra Simpson

While once people were able to walk up to and around the Arbarkuh tree, this is no longer possible – a fenced concrete path now encircles the tree (at some distance, thank goodness) and a sign tells visitors: “Old trees are manifestation of the glory of God in the creation of the universe, so treat them with respect”. The sign also contains the dimensions of the tree: 25m high and with a canopy diameter of 14m.

Arbarkuh is near Yazd, one of the driest regions in Iran, so the tree has done well. We saw many young trees in desert areas and were told that March 5 is National Tree Planting Day in Iran with every family given a tree to plant and everyone encouraged to care for a tree on that day. See some photos from last year’s event.