The Intersection of Plants and People
Floriography, the Victorian Age’s cryptic language of flowers, has reignited the interests of modern gift-givers who want to add more meaning to blooms. While a bouquet of red roses could be deciphered as “I’m passionate for you,” a yellow bunch might mean, “Let’s just be friends.” For those who prefer a more direct conversation via flowers, having a rose named after someone they love or admire is an impressive statement.
Brandon Mably was secretly plotting such a gift for his longtime friend and fellow textile artist, Kaffe Fassett. Fassett’s 70th birthday was approaching, and some five years prior to the event, Mably began asking around to see whether anyone might know who could develop a rose that would embody his friend’s personality as well as carry the traits he knew Fassett loved in the flower.
“Kaffe has had a love affair with cabbages and roses for as long as I have known him,” Mably explains, adding that the plants’ forms and colors have inspired many of Fassett’s paintings, textile designs and needlepoints.
Dedicating a rose to Fassett did have its practical side, as described by Mably: “What do you get for the man that has all he wants? I didn’t think having a cabbage named after you would be as charming as having a rose.”
Mably began his mission by courting a prestigious British rose company. He recalls sending three letters to their PR department, even going so far as to have his friends write letters of reference for him. He felt frustrated, he says, when he never received a reply.
“It was the hardest project I have had to do,” admits Mably, who not only designs knitwear, but writes books on the topic, travels worldwide to teach design, and is simultaneously the manager of the London-based Kaffe Fassett Studio.
Mably’s persistent search paid off when it was suggested he approach a local rose society for advice. The society put him into contact with Bernhard Mehring. The German-born Mehring started the company EUROSA in 1992 after switching careers from engineering to his longtime passion of breeding roses. Mehring’s company now also owns the UK agency for Rosen Tantau, a renowned breeder of roses headquartered just outside of Hamburg, Germany.
According to Mehring, rose breeding at the professional level is typically a ten-year process. From pollination to market introduction, breeders must cull out sub-par plants from many thousands of seedlings. On a daily basis, hybridizers examine a flower’s shape, color, type (such as bush or climber), fragrance, disease resistance, productivity and overall appeal. Few make the final cut.
“Less than 0.05 percent of the seedlings produced will ever be commercialized,” Mehring explains.
Once selected for market, the lucky rose is named by its breeder, patented, and introduced for licensing to growers. The plant is then presented to the press and public at a major flower show.
“Very occasionally some of us make a rose available for naming, as has been the case with the ‘Kaffe Fassett’ rose,” Mehring states. “The genetics of roses is very complicated and records of the ancestors of a parent rose are unreliable, therefore, predicting the character of a seedling is almost impossible.”
It requires an experienced rose breeder with many breeding lines to produce anything close to what a customer is hoping to find.
‘Alexander’s Issie’ is a rose developed by Dickson Roses of Northern Ireland at the request of the late British fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. McQueen wanted to name a rose in memory of his friend and mentor, Isabella Blow, a prominent British fashion editor, who tragically took her own life in 2007.
“Mr. McQueen had requested a certain color, flower shape, plant habit; all to reflect [the] best in Ms. Blow’s character and personality,” explained Dickson, the 178-year-old company’s sixth-generation owner. “I think he’d have preferred a slightly different shade of red, but this just wasn’t available, so he was happy to compromise.”
Dickson Roses offers customers the chance to name new varieties they have developed. Roses available for naming undergo the same stringent testing as those plants going to mass market, but for one reason or another — perhaps the rose is too similar to an existing variety or its growth habit is slightly inconsistent — they are not introduced, but are still considered too good for the compost heap.
Dickson Roses provides three different naming options. For £2,000 ($3,267 USD), a customer can name a rose variety, and is given several plants for personal use. For £5,000 ($8,168 USD), the chosen rose is named by the buyer and listed for sale in both the Dickson print catalogue as well as online. If the purchaser wants the rose’s name to be potentially immortalized (at least in the U.K.) — for £10,000 ($16,335 USD) the variety will be offered to rose growers nationwide as part of their catalogues. The last option takes more time, Dickson says, because typically the plant needs to be propagated in greater quantities for distribution to commercial growers. Most customers end up choosing the first option.
Before ‘Alexander’s Issie’ was launched nationwide, McQueen died by his own hand. The reddish-pink rose was presented to Blow’s sister, Julia Delves Broughton, at the 2010 Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. This flower show, the world’s largest, is held in Surrey, England, every summer on the well-manicured grounds of King Henry the Eighth’s favorite palace, and has been the setting for other Dickson introductions, such as ‘Rebecca Mary.’
A peach-gold floribunda, ‘Rebecca Mary’ was named by Dr. Nick Harris, who wanted to surprise his wife, Becky, on her 40th birthday. Dickson tells the story of how Dr. Harris, along with his young son, travelled from England to select the right rose for the special dedication.
“I took lots of photos of Dad and son with the rose, being careful not to reveal why we were taking them,” Dickson remembers. “This was to no avail, as I got a phone call when they got home, telling me that the little boy had told his mother everything!”
In recent years, roses have also been named for charitable purposes or to promote business. World of Roses of Bedfordshire, England, has provided this service, selling plants such as the pink, ‘Ribbon Rose’ to help fight breast cancer and the ‘Growing Hope’ rose, which helps fund the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, a research and family support charity based in the UK. In 2005, French hybridizer Alain Meilland created the ‘Liv Tyler’ rose for Givenchy. Named after the American actress and Givenchy model, the scented flower was incorporated into the fashion house’s perfume, Very Irrésistible.
While Mably admits that he could have bought a second-hand car with the funds it took to develop the ‘Kaffe Fassett’ rose, he happily remembers surprising his friend, who reacted with a silent, dropped jaw when he learned of the deep magenta bloom that carries his name.
“He’s surrounded by all his bits and bobs in the studio, the afternoon play had finished on Radio 4, he was engrossed in his knitting,” Mably recalls. “The timing was right. My only concern was that it wasn’t the right color. I couldn’t have given him a white rose. He was asked, ‘Do you like your rose?’ He beamed and said, ‘It’s perfect, and it has a scent — it’s the best gift I’ve ever been given!’”
For information on rose breeders and naming opportunities, see PlantXing’s links page, Find: Rose Naming Resources.