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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.