Roses And Rosarians I Have Known

My first contact with the Canadian Rose Society came in 1962, when I joined Sheridan Nurseries Limited as staff horticulturist, working with Albert E. Brown, the vice president. Mr. Brown had been involved with the society for several decades as I recall, and at the time was an honorary director of the CRS. He thought I should make it a priority to participate in CRS activities. He told me about the fact that Sheridan’s had for a number of years, stored the society’s glass vases used at shows, out at the Oakville Home Farm (off Winston Churchill Blvd.).

My first two involvements were putting up a little display at the 1962 CRS show, and making up a new ad for the Canadian Rose Annual in that year. Since I lived in East York, and the editor, Orville E. Bowles, lived in adjacent Leaside, I took the ad material over to him and he and I had a little chat about the CRS.

When I look at the photos of that display now, I chuckle, and so will you! 

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Above left: Sheridan Nurseries executives in 1961 viewing rose fields at Sherway property now part of the Sherway Gardens Shopping Centre: Howard B. Dunington-Grubb, president (tall at left) with Albert E. Brown, vice-president (just behind HBDG) and J.V. (Bill) Stensson, managing director (tall at right). Above right: that’s me(!) with my 1962 Sheridan display.

The storage of the CRS vases at Oakville is worth mentioning. I well remember that each year following our pick-up of the vases from the annual show, the folks at the nursery washed all of them in order that no sediment remained that would be most difficult to remove the next year. Then, just before delivering them the following year we'd wash them again.

One year, a CRS executive member suggested that "the Sheridan people are breaking too many vases and I think we should stop storing our vases there." 

'Bert' Brown was most displeased with this, and expressed his displeasure to me on several occasions.

My main responsibility at Sheridan Nurseries was the annual retail catalogue and semi-annual wholesale catalogues. I could write a book on that topic alone! The process basically was that I in the head office in Etobicoke would receive from the staff in the nursery office in Oakville, lists of what we had or thought we would have available. In the case of roses, except for All-America winners and other similar new introductions (which we would buy in), most of the bushes would have been grown in fields at the Etobicoke (Sherway Drive) and later Glen Williams (Georgetown, Ontario) farm. In late fall they would have been dug and put into storage at Oakville.

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Above: the Sheridan rose field at Glen Williams in 1967.

Also, by way of background, most nursery employees were given an "extended vacation" from just before Christmas to mid February. One winter in the mid-sixties, your not so humble horticulturist/writer knew he was alone to get the retail rose section done by the next day. I had two lists of roses, one for the wholesale catalogue, and one for the retail. Usually the wholesale list would contain only those cultivars of which we had a very good supply. I always compared these two, and seldom found any discrepancies--mainly because both lists had been prepared by the top-notch team of nursery manager J.V. (Bill) Stensson, and secretary Kay Pleasants. On the cultivar ‘Frau Karl Drushki’, I noted they showed a large quantity in the retail list, and none in the wholesale. I spent a few moments phoning to see if I could raise anyone at home but to no avail. I decided the fastest thing was to drive out to the Oakville barn, go into the refrigerator and do an actual count.

It was a cold night! When I got to the farm and found the hidden key, I proceeded to go in, find the section with ‘Frau Karl Drushki’, and do a count. As I was doing it, I realized how warm I was, and removed my heavy coat. After completing the count, I began to wonder why it wasn't almost as cold in the refrigerator as it was outside. I looked for and found the thermometer and noted it registering well over 55 degrees Fahrenheit!

Excuse me! It's supposed to be a refrigerator! In looking further I noted that many of the cultivars were beginning to show white growth. That should not have been the case! Obviously the refrigerator system had broken down. I spent the next almost an hour on the phone trying to reach any of the employees who would know how to fix this problem, which had the potential of ruining our entire inventory. Once again Betty Stewart (Stensson) and her beautiful daughter Laurie Pallett (now a Justice of the Peace in Mississauga) were the ones who came to the rescue with a list of numbers.

That was how we managed to save one large Sheridan Nurseries crop from disaster!

Also in the mid-sixties, the great Canadian War of the Roses occurred! This involved the selection by the Canadian nursery industry of a rose hybridized a few years earlier by Victoria octogenarian Fred Blakeney. They renamed his rose ‘Miss Canada’ and it was the industry’s answer to Montreal promoter, Jack G. McIntyre’s then recently introduced ‘Canadian Centennial’--a rose that would raise money for Rotary Club children’s charities. The Canadian nursery industry disliked Jack’s idea because his ‘Canadian Centennial’ was actually a U.S. rose from the Jackson & Perkins firm. Both roses sold well, and in fact, Jack McIntyre went on to introduce other special roses as fund raisers for other charities. (See my article about Jack on the site.) 

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Above left: Fred Blakeney’s ‘Miss Canada’ HT rose; Above right: Sheridan’s field crop of ‘Miss Canada in the summer of 1966, for spring sale in 1967.

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Above left: Jack McIntyre’s ‘Canadian Centennial’ floribunda; Above right: a typical display for ‘Canadian Centennial’ exhibited by Jack McIntyre.

The year 1966 was significant in my times with the CRS. Keith Laver informed us that Sam McGredy IV would be visiting Canada. We at Sheridan decided to join with the CRS and host a garden party for Sam at our then head office location, a lovely Dunington-Grubb garden at Highway 27 and the QEW. The company was in active negotiations to sell the property for what was to become Sherway Shopping Centre, but the garden was lovely, and the pride and joy of 'Bert' Brown. The organization and details fell to me, and I thought I had covered all bases, using fantastic resource Betty Stewart (Stensson) as my food/beverage consultant! The evening was beautiful, and there are some great b&w photos around of the event, taken by our official photographer, Fred Holdack.

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Above left: Part of the Sheridan Head Office garden at Sherway Drive as it appeared at the time of the 1966 party for Sam McGredy IV. Above right: Larry Sherk, my successor at Sheridan Nurseries now retiring after 32 years service.

Mr. Brown died in March 1967, and I left Sheridan Nurseries in the spring of 1969. At my behest, my good friend Larry Sherk, then of Agriculture Canada (having worked on the new Canadian Plant Hardiness Zone Map) took over. Larry is just now planning his retirement from Sheridan for the end of this year.

In 1972, long-time CRS executive member Milt Cadsby asked if I would edit the CRS annual for that year. He had seen my work as editor of Canadian Nurseryman magazine for a year that ended in September the year previous. When he made that comment, I produced copies of Recreation Canada magazine, the bi-monthly business publication of the Canadian Parks/Recreation Association that I had been publishing/editing since 1964. He said he was impressed, and asked me to do the editing, but that he would actually be listed as editor. I declined that offer, and suggested that I would do the project completely if I was paid an honorarium and was listed as assistant editor. On that we agreed. During the year, Col. Sam McLaughlin, the founder of General Motors of Canada, died, and Milt and I agreed that we should dedicate that issue to him, which we did.

I declined further editing responsibilities for the CRS in 1973!

That year I decided to make a visit to the world-famous Chelsea Flower Show in London, England--something I had wanted to do for years, but never seemed able to arrange because it was traditionally the busiest of seasons while I worked at Sheridan Nurseries. Even after that, May being the peak gardening month, it previously seemed impossible to be away. In 1973 I decided I would visit Chelsea “come hell or high water”. And so I did! One of the people I was thrilled to see at the show that year (on Monday, the final ‘move-in’ day) was Harry Wheatcroft, the flamboyant rose hybridizer. I actually took not only a photo of the new rose that was named for him, but also managed a not-too-good shot of him arranging a group of blooms of that rose.

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Above: ‘Harry Wheatcroft’ as I photographed it at Chelsea in 1973.

In the later 70s I came to know a number of rosarians including Jack Blair, one of the greatest workers/volunteers for the Civic Garden Centre I've ever known. A way back then, Jack had converted his entire front lawn into a rose garden. He was in-deed, decades ahead of his time!

Evelyn Fallest is an old friend of mine. I had known her for years when all of sudden she told me she had started growing roses. She had well over 100 bushes, and was working at converting everyone she knew to the hobby.

Doreen Stanton, your editor for this year's annual started in a similar fashion, as did miniature rose grower Cece Lamrock. They got one rose bush, appreciated the beauty, and were literally "hooked". I remember Doreen Stanton well from when she was a "supervisor" with Bell Canada, and in those days, small private enter-prisers like me often encountered what we considered major problems with "Ma Bell". Once I had found Doreen, my problems were over; she could always find an easy way to get around the problem.

The year 1980 meant a big change of scene as I moved my entire operation (publishing/editing my own monthly newsletter for parks people and periodic radio broadcasting) to Montréal for seven months. The event was the first international flower and garden show ever held in North America--Les floralies internationale de Montréal. I was assistant to the director, Pierre Bourque who was also head of the Jardin botanique de Montréal (and the Mayor of Montréal until the end of this year). My main involvement with the show was with Canadian and U.S. garden writers, visiting English-speaking dignitaries and with those working on the U.S. and British gardens. In the case of the British garden, the entire project was under the direction of Richard 'Dick' Balfour. Dick was retired from the Bank of England, where is signature appeared on the Pound Stirling notes! He was a great guy, and a wonderful companion. He and I dined out in a different restaurant almost every night in the two-month run-up to the opening of the outdoor show. However, occasionally a little bit of British 'aristocracy' came through! Two members of the CRS would see that just a little more than a decade later!

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Above left: a general view of part of the 1980 Montréal Floralies--it’s amazing to re-alize that this was an entirely man-made island for the 1967 World Fair!  Above right: I had the honour of showing many special guests around our gardens at the Floralies, two of whom were Joe Clark (who until February that year had been our Prime Minister but was then the leader of the opposition) and his wife Maureen McTeer. In this picture, his daughter Catherine is in the stroller being pushed by Joe.

Late in 1982 I arranged a visit to California by Amtrak train. On New Years Day 1983, I took in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, which I had first seen in 1976. In 1976 much of my Rose Parade visit was arranged by FTD whose prize-winning float that year featured roses. In 1983, although not shown on the major network’s TV coverage, the International House of Pancakes float actually caught on fire near the beginning of the parade, right in front of where we were sitting. It was amazing to see both how fast the flames spread and the exit of the driver and other behind-the-scenes workers, as well as the actions of the parade marshals to put out the fire and keep the parade moving without any interruption. 

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Above: the International House of Pancakes float almost fully ablaze at the beginning of the 1983 Rose Bowl parade.

Also, in 1983 I hosted a four-week garden tour to Australia and New Zealand, the plans for which were almost entirely developed by me using friends I had in the parks business in those countries. Knowing Sam McGredy IV was now resident in Auckland, I asked Keith Laver for his address, and to make a long story, slightly shorter, our group paid Sam a visit at his hybridizing greenhouse. Audrey Meiklejohn, a past president of CRS, was on that trip and was much looking forward to that particular visit. Sam told us the problem he had in remembering numbers and that for his new roses under study, he always assigned names that he could re-member easily, instead of numbers.

He had a new medium pink floribunda that he had nicknamed "Sexy Rexy" in honour of "my Auckland drinking buddy, Rex." He went on to say that the rose, year by year, looked better and better and eventually he realized it would be one worthy of introduction. At that point, he said he asked Rex what he thought about staying with the nickname. He himself thought the name would be a good one in many of the countries where he sold, including France and Germany. Apparently Rex' response was, "In for a penny in for a pound--leave it as 'Sexy Rexy'."

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Above left: Sam McGredy IV speaks with my tour group in his Auckland New Zealand hybridizing greenhouse; Above right, my first picture (1983) of ‘Sexy Rexy’ with some of the original hybridization tags. It was introduced three years later and is still popular.

And that dear friends, is how 'Sexy Rexy', introduced in 1986, got its name (in Britain, it was ‘Coronation Street’), and isn't it interesting that the cultivar is still quite popular now over 15 years later!

There was another true story that developed at Sam's hybridizing greenhouse on that visit. It had to do with four ladies on the tour who were not too enamoured with my briefing information about the visit to Sam's establishment. I told everyone that he had invited us to tour the greenhouse and see how the hybridization process was carried out, and to have a glass or two of wine that had been produced in graperies immediately surrounding his greenhouse. They decided to stay aboard the bus and boycott the booze! When Audrey Mieklejohn learned what was going on (she feeling that it was an insult to Sam) she decided to go aboard the bus and "talk the ladies into coming out to the little party.”

Well, it didn't work, and Audrey and I still remember that entire occurrence!

The Chelsea Flower Show was such a hit with me the first time I visited (1973) that I returned at least one day before it opened, in 1978, 1985, 1987, 1990, 2000 and 2001. The visit in 1987 was particularly of interest rose-wise. Each year the major horticultural and nursery firms spend immense sums of money in advance publicity for new cultivars they plan to introduce at the show. For 1987 the famous rose nursery, Colts of Colchester, were introducing a new HT rose called ‘Prince Harry’ in honour of the Queen’s grandson. Even before I visited the show I heard and read much about the new scarlet red rose. As soon as I was in the show’s main tent, Colts was one of the booths high on my list to see. What a disappointment! Obviously the company had difficulties forcing the rose bushes, and those on exhibit were just terrible. Much of the foliage on all the bushes displayed had disease, and the blooms were puny. It certainly reminded me just what a chancy business we’re in. Poor ‘Prince Harry'!

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Above: Check the foliage of the ‘Prince Harry’ HT rose at its introduction during the 1987 Chelsea Flower show.

The ornamental garden at Mainau, southern Germany had been on my list to see in Europe for some years but I didn’t get there until 1990, and then I did it twice in the one year--in May, and again in October. I have many ‘cute’ stories about this wonderful garden, but for the purposes of this article, let me just say that Mainau has one of the best displays of shrub roses that I have seen. It was interesting to compare the rose display in May with how it looked five months later.

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Above left: Part of the large display of shrub roses at Mainau in May 1990 with ‘Austrian Copper’ front and centre; above right, another part of Mainau featuring roses in October the same year.

Later in the 90s, Audrey Mieklejohn called one day to tell me that she and Ethel Freeman were planning to go to the Chelsea Flower Show, and was there anything I could do to get them in a day early as I had mentioned having done myself in previous years.

I went ahead and made the arrangements through my good friends at Phostrogen fertilizer and the two of them got in on the Monday, the day before the show opened. 

When they returned, Audrey called to tell me they had run into Dick Balfour on the pre-opening day at Chelsea, and he asked how they ever managed to gain access on that day. She said that when they responded that Art Drysdale had arranged it, Dick asked how in the world I could have arranged such from Canada! Audrey said that at that point they decided they should drop the subject--thinking the less said the better!