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.

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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.

Roses are, er, green

While chatting to rose breeder Rob Somerfield at the weekend I mentioned seeing his “green” rose in the NZ Rose Society trial grounds in Palmerston North early this year. Yes, he said, he had created a green rose – and it had only taken him 23 years to get there!

Last year a regional conference of the World Federation of Rose Societies was held in Palmerston North and naturally enough included a visit to the trial grounds. Rob’s green rose, with the breeding name Sompounamu, won the People’s Choice award as voted by conference delegates.

The as-yet unnamed green rose bred by Rob Somerfield. The plant was photographed towards the end of its second flowering in pretty arid conditions. I’m publishing it because it gives an indication of colour. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Lime buds open to lime-green blooms which deepen in colour as the blooms age. Small to medium grower with matt green foliage,” the trial grounds webpage says. “To be released in the near future.” Rob adds that it’s a good picking rose.

He is holding back a New Zealand release because he’s working towards a release in the United States, a market whose PVR rules demand it be there first “but it’s hard sitting on it”, he says.

Lemon ‘n Lime planted with a purple penstemon. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The new plant is one of the parents of Lemon ‘n Lime, a yellow-green that won the Rose of the Year title for Rob at the Hamilton rose trials in 2011.

Meanwhile, look out for his new Little Miss Perfect in garden centres in November. “It grows very small but flowers like a floribunda – it’s a real patio rose that has large flowers.” Rob trades as Glenavon Roses.

Rosa chinensis viridiflora. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Rosa chinensis viridiflora is commonly called the green rose and has been sold commercially in England since 1856, although is thought to have been in cultivation for maybe 100 years before that. The unusual little blooms are made of sepals rather than petals which means no pollen and no hips (so no hybridising). Read more here.

You may see images online of emerald-green roses, perfect blooms. There are also step-by-step instructions available on how to “create” such a bloom, which generally means standing the cut stem of a white rose in a container of green-coloured liquid!

This & that

Sorry to report that gardener and sculptor Terry Parker has passed away recently. In 2012 I visited the garden he and wife Margaret had created from an unpromising site of gorse and “other rubbish” and which they had named “Pig’s Ear Park”.

Terry Parker with his stone carving of St Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners.

They were opening their 2ha country garden for the biennial Tauranga Garden and Artfest in 2012, the last time they were doing so as Margaret was facing a period of treatment for ill health and Terry was just going through the diagnosis process.

He good-humouredly described himself then as  “the donkey” when it came to the garden. “Put it in, take it out … that’s a tree.”

Terry, a former member of the Royal Navy in Britain, took up sculpting in the 1970s and eventually worked in stone, wood and recycled materials. One of his pieces in the garden was of St Fiacre, the Irish saint who lived in France, and is patron saint of gardeners (and cab drivers in Paris).

When I was in Palmerston North around New Year I dropped in at the national Rose Trial grounds to catch up with the winners of the most recent awards, given out in November as part of the regional conference of the World Federation of Rose Societies (the roses generally aren’t named at this stage).

Gold Star of the South Pacific (rose of the year): A red rose bred by David Kenny of Ireland. Mr Kenny is an amateur breeder.

Certificates of Merit: Rob Somerfield of Te Puna won two for two different roses.

One of the unnamed Somerfield roses that won a Certificate of Merit.

Nola Simpson Novelty Award (the first time the award has been given): Chris Warner of England for Bright as a Button, a pink floribunda with a darker centre.

The major results from the national rose show, held at the convention:

Champion of champions decorative miniature: Glowing Amber shown by Derrol and Helen White (Whangarei). Champion of champions large rose: Reflections shown by Janice Walker. The rose was bred by the late Nola Simpson of Palmerston North.

The Groups listing has been updated to reflect the fact that Tauranga has lost its branch of the Cactus and Succulent Society. The group decided to close at the end of last year, demoralised by not being able to attract new, younger members.