"Despite the great possibilities for failure, the burdensome work, and the lack of glamour, my hobby became a passion. Even with successes, it didn't take me long to realize that growing roses would be more fun if it entailed less work."
— William Radler
At a time when children were seen and not heard William fought boredom at his grandparents' home by looking through rose catalogs. Page after page, he was captivated by the various shapes, sizes and colors of the roses.
At the age of 9, Williams' fascination with roses continued. He took his allowance money and went to the local A & P to purchase his first rose for 49 cents. His parents warned him that the plant would die over the winter. William expected the rose to survive and flourish in his backyard. He was right! Not only did it survive, it did even better the second year.
William remembers the bloom of his first rose. "The first bud exploded into the most gorgeous thing that I had ever seen. And, it was fragrant! Before long, I had to have more plants to experience the multitude of colors, sizes and forms and the wealth of perfume fragrances that my grandparents' catalogs had promised."
With a costly hobby and a very limited budget, William learned to shop for rose bargains. He quickly learned how to propagate more plants through cuttings and through bud grafting. In only a few short years the entire yard was overcome with roses and William was hooked.
To acquire more skills and share his experiences, he joined a local rose society. At age 17, William was a charter member of Milwaukee's North Shore Rose Society, growing and showing perfect roses. At his first rose show he won the sweepstakes for having the most blue ribbons.
William transformed his parents' backyard into a beautiful showplace of roses. Even with his success at growing and maintaining beautiful exhibition quality roses it didn't take him long to realize the work involved in caring for them. He discovered that in order to combat blackspot, his roses needed to be sprayed once a week. William had about 200 roses and used 18 different sprays to prevent disease and pests. He also noticed other rosarians, unable to do all the work, cut back on their rose gardens.
"Initially my motive was selfish" William said "I wanted to breed the maintenance out of roses so I wouldn't have to cut back as the years passed."
The thought of breeding roses that everyone can grow and enjoy became a life-long pursuit. "In effect, I would breed the maintenance out of roses."
What maintenance practices did he breed out of roses?
"First of all, winter protection is an annual chore. To grow modern roses in climates with winter temperatures dropping below zero degrees Fahrenheit; protection from the cold was beneficial - in most cases downright necessary. Much of the modern roses' tenderness to cold has been due to the practice of breeding roses in climates much warmer than my garden in USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Zone 5 where the temperature can drop to -20 degrees F. or lower.
William remembers one record setting winter when the temperature plunged down to -30 degrees F. without the insulating benefit of snow cover. He was well into his rose breeding, during this record setting winter and most of the roses survived.
Breeding roses with greater cold weather tolerance would relieve the northern gardener of the need to apply and remove winter protection materials and the necessity to replace winter killed plants when protection failed.
Another unpleasant chore is the necessary application of pesticides. For example, people growing roses in the humid climate east of the Mississippi find that blackspot disease is the main deterrent to growing quality roses."
Blackspot causes leaves to develop blackish spots that turn yellow before falling off the plant. The plant is left with unsightly, naked, thorny stems. It's weakened by the disease and stops blooming. It can be controlled with sprays that need to be applied every week starting prior to the first bloom of spring and ending with the first frost.
Breeding disease resistance into roses would eliminate the need for sprays. The result would mean not having to spray weekly to maintain beautiful roses. In addition, roses would become environmentally friendly - it would no longer to necessary to apply toxic chemicals to the garden to combat pests and disease.
How to breed a new rose?
"Breeding the breakthrough rose, Knock Out® required knowledge, skill, determination and the ability to accept frequent failure. To hybridize a new rose, pollen is taken from the male part of one rose to fertilize the egg cells of another rose. If sounds simple, however there are many obstacles to overcome.
To produce a seed that grows into improved plants requires shuffling rose genes through cross-pollination. You don't find all the desired traits in one plant so it takes many roses to come up with one good rose.
Another problem is some of the plants are female sterile so they cannot produce seed. You may have a beautiful plant and the desired disease resistance you've been waiting for but without seeds you can't breed it any further. If this is not difficult enough, one out of every three cross-fertilization attempts is successful."
Each June William cross-pollinates the rose hips so they have sufficient time to ripen. "I start harvesting the seed in mid-September and put it in labeled, zip-lock, plastic, sandwich-size bags. Each bag holds a folded moist paper towel into which the cleaned seed is inserted. The bags of seed are then held at 40 degrees F. for six weeks or more until the seeds begin to germinate.
Each germinating seed is then planted in individual pots, assigned an inventory number, and grown under florescent shop lights until they can be acclimated to the outdoors where each is grown out and subjected to rigorous evaluation."
The Rigorous evaluation To ensure the disease resistance of his roses William has developed a rigorous evaluation. He creates an environment that guarantees diseases have ideal conditions to survive and thrive.
William collects diseased leaves early in the season and dries them on sheets of newspaper. The dried leaves are put into a kitchen blender to create a powder. Large quantities of this powder are sprinkled over the entire rose garden while the rose leaves are wet. The overhead watering adds additional moisture and creates an ideal environment for infection.
"Diseases like blackspot usually show themselves within two weeks of this inoculation. In any case, before the current growing season ends, a high level of disease resistance is easy to spot among the devastation in my garden." A friend of mine has called this practice "benign neglect!"
William currently has an inventory of over 1,000 roses - he eliminates as many as 500 each year to make room for new varieties. His determination, talent and love of roses have paid off.
After 15 years of trail and error in rose breeding one of Williams friends pointed in the direction of one particular new rose and said, "You know, Bill, if your roses were as good as that one, you would really have something" The rose she pointed to, after 10 year of rigorous testing in different locations nationwide, is the most disease resistant rose on the market today, The Knock Out® Rose.
The Knock Out® Rose
In breeding with the roses that directly produced Knock Out® William found out that the father didn't produce hips and the mother produced only a few. Fortunately, the father produced some useful pollen and the mother produced some viable seed.
William remembers the beginning of Knock Out®. "A normal rose hip usually contains about 30 to 50 seeds. Astonishingly, the mother of Knock Out® germinated from the only seed in one hip that I was able to get."
Ironically, The Knock Out®; Rose was also an only seed. And the plant, as a late season runt, was almost discarded. Sometimes one needs to be a tough taskmaster. I'm glad, in this case I wasn't."
Knock Out® was sent to The Conard-Pyle Company/Star® Roses for testing in August 1992, and the rest is history.
William believes "the three roses that I feel contributed the most to the hardiness and resistance to blackspot were the varieties Applejack, Carefree Beauty™, and Eddie's Crimson."
For color and flower form I used the roses Faberge, Tampico, Playboy, Deep Purple, and Razzle Dazzle. This last group also provided useful female plants. Crossing these two groups together resulted in several genetic mismatches.
The mother of Knock Out® has white semi-double flowers opening from pale pink buds, a low wide-spreading growth habit, and a moderate resistance to blackspot and good crown hardiness.
The father of Knock Out® is a highly disease resistant and vigorous plant, but the dark red flowers burn in the sun. It also exhibits borderline hardiness and a plant with a tall growth habit."
In 1988, the award winning Knock Out was created; William united the mother and father.
In 2000 The Knock Out® Rose was given the prestigious AARS award (All American Rose Selection). Since its introduction The Knock Out® Rose has easily become the best selling new rose on the market.
William is not finished breeding the maintenance out of roses. "I still find the need to spend long hours with the stress of mosquito swatting and weed pulling and getting my hands dirty - there seems to be so much more to do. I want easier roses in all different colors, sizes and fragrances."
Right now there are many selections being tested at commercial nurseries. The next crop of roses, thinned from 600 to 350 in his laboratory basement is being readied for testing outdoors.
Williams's inspiration "To have so many rose introductions that they will need a catalog of their own."