In 1960, when Astor Perry toured through England on a business trip, he visited the Royal National Rose Society. On his visit, in addition to viewing the thousands of roses, he discovered the Annual published by the Society. Being a scientist by training and vocation, he was impressed with the Annual because it was written by nurserymen and more scientific in nature than U.S. annuals.
Perry had a set of previous issues sent back to the U.S. When he got back to the states, he began reading the annual and ran across a statement by the President of the Society: “Amateurs will not likely be able to breed a commercial rose.” Fortunately for rose growers, Perry set out to prove him wrong.
Perry, as an amateur hybridizer, has introduced over 20 registered roses, including such well-known varieties as Suffolk, Dublin, Dothan, Elmhurst and Jema, and has proven to be a pioneer and inspiration for many of the amateur hybridizers who are developing a large number of queens ruling the tables in today’s rose shows.
Perry, a native of Tennessee, attended North Carolina State University in the late ’40s and early and early ’50s. Switching from forestry to agronomy because of better job prospects, Perry went on to have a 34 year career as a peanut specialist in North Carolina, doing field research and teaching.
Perry’s first contact with roses came in 1957 when a co-worker brought a rosebush as a housewarming gift when he and his wife, Jessie Mae, and four children moved into their present home in West Raleigh. Perry didn’t know anything about roses. “I just put ‘em the ground, and they did exceptionally well,” Perry said. He eventually fertilizer sprayed and pruned them, went to the Piggly Wiggly and bought a few more, then he bought a few more. Then he bought a few more from Jackson & Perkins. By the time he made the trip to England in 1960 — he had about a hundred roses.
In the 1960′s and ’70s, Perry “played around” with hybridizing. His early crosses were not very good, but he kept experimenting and expanding each year, spurred on by the challenge. He finally got some good seedlings which excited him.
By 1980, he had developed and registered seven new roses (Atherton, Bambey, Bobo, Dothan, Jema, Kingaroy and Koppies). All were named for peanut towns or peanut research stations around the world, except for Jema, which was named for Jessie Mae, his bride of the last 51 years.
In 1981 Perry retired and his rose hobby became his vocation. He bought a farm in Johnston County, NC, and used several acres to grow his seedlings. He started his own rose business, grew the rootstock, budded the plants, and with Jessie Mae’s assistance, marketed them. A heart attack in 1985 forced him to slow down. His roses are presently available from Hortico, Inc. and Certified Roses, Inc. (Co-operative Rose Growers, Inc.). He is still concentrating on crossing and developing new roses.
In the 35 years Perry has been producing new roses, he estimates he has made well over a 100,000 crosses. Out of all these crosses only 22 are commercially available. These roses are registered, but not patented (except for Ruffles and Pastel Princess which have been patented by a nursery).
Perry says hybridizing takes a total commitment as the tasks go on 12 months of the year, averaging two hours per day. Some days during the peak months of May and June, 8-10 hour days are common. Perry has trained a lot of individuals in hybridizing, but most give it up because of the commitment involved.
Like most hybridizers, over the years Perry developed his own hybridizing techniques. Usually in the afternoon, he selects one parent and emasculates a bloom by removing the petals and sepals and then collects the stamens in a petri dish where they are stored until morning when they open and are ready to release pollen. The pollen is rubbed on the stigmas of the other parent and this parent is labeled with the cross.
Each stigma is attached to an ovary. The pollen sends genetic material down a slim tube to the ovary where it is combined with the egg. If the parents are compatible, seeds will set and a hip will form. The hip normally contains from 8-10 seeds, but can contain up to 50 seeds. It is likely that each seed will produce a completely different rose. Perry can usually tell in about three weeks if seeds will form. Perry has also found that it is a waste of time to try the pollination process if the pollen is wet. Moisture explodes the pollen grain and fertilization will not take place.
The hips are harvested when they start changing color to a red, pink or yellow. It is usually about four months from fertilization to harvest. The hips are then cut open and the seeds removed. Perry places the seeds in a glass of water. If they sink, it means the seeds are viable and have an embryo. The seeds are then planted in a mixture of sphagnum moss and sand in plastic shoeboxes with lids. The mixture is kept at 65 degrees and 100% humidity.
By Thanksgiving, the seeds begin to germinate in the boxes, and Perry transplants them to peat pots. He keeps the transplants in a greenhouse at 40 degrees. Back in the ’80s he would have about 4-5000 plants, but now has about 1000 plants each year.
In about six weeks the first blooms appear and Perry starts culling the plants. He uses the ARS rating system to evaluate the blooms and anything rated below a 7.7 is discarded. As his goal is primarily to produce exhibition quality roses, form is his most important selection factor. Originally Perry kept track of plants for two years, but found that his rating at the first bloom usually was about the same as at the two-year point. By April, after continuous culling, he has only about 100 plants left, which are then budded.
He checks the plants on a weekly basis from May to October. In two years, the 100 plants may be narrowed down to about one to three roses with potential. Perry has gone up to three years without a new rose to release commercially. Although some of the roses are not good enough for release, they may be used as “studs” in the fertilization process for future crosses.
For his rootstock, Perry primarily uses 62.5, developed by Dr. Buck, a horticulturist at Iowa State University. It was developed from Japanese multiflora stock and was selected for vigor, ability to withstand the cold, high percentage of #1 plants, and the lack of thorns. He has tried other rootstock with success, but uses 62.5 because it is thornless and easier to work with.
The selection of parents in the hybridization process is based mostly upon experience. Early on, Perry found that he needed to computerize his operations to avoid fruitless crosses. He wrote his own computer program and once complete he found he cut his crosses by 2/3 by identifying roses that had the best potential as parents. He identifies good parents as those that produce seeds that germinate well, produce a good number of petals, good form and produce offspring with clear, not muddy, colors. It helps if the parents have chromosomes that are similar, but this can only be learned by trial and error.
He has found that success in crossing parents one time does not insure successful crosses every time with these parents. Some of the better parents that he has identified include: Alec’s Red, King of Hearts, Silver Jubilee, Fragrant Cloud, Mr. Lincoln, Folklore, Touch of Class, Helen Traubet, Garden Party, Feuerzauber (Fire Magic), Oregoid, Blue Moon, Paradise and Olympiad. Perrv has registered 22 roses: Atherton, Bombey, Bobo, Chowan, Cloudland, Darling Annabelle, Dothan, Dublin, Elmhurst, Hondo, Jema, Kingaroy, Koppies, Lasker, Lewiston, Lobo, Ruffles, Shari, Stokes, Suffolk and Tifton. His personal favorite is Suffolk.
His most recent release in 1995 is Pastel Princess, named and offered by Certified Roses, Inc. (Co-operative Rose Growers). Pastel Princess is more notable for its color than for its exhibition form. The first ten outer petals are a medium pink; the inside petals appear cream-colored. As the bloom opens, the inside turns pink then the full blooms become a mixture of colors and tend toward a dark red.
Most of Perry’s releases are named for towns or cities associated with peanut production. Cloudland, is named for his old Tennessee high school, Lobo for the school mascot at North Carolina State University in honor of the school’s centennial celebration, Shari and Darling Annabelle were named by Hortico. Perry says he presently has two or three more with some promise.
When asked about the trends he sees in hybridizing, Perry believes more amateurs will become involved, especially amateurs who have been successful exhibitors. He says that his own experience in exhibiting roses is very important in his hybridizing process. “Commercial growers look at the bottom line.” says Perry. “They look for roses that are easy to bud, produce a high percentage of #1 plants, and have market appeal. Amateur hybridizers look more for roses that will exhibit well.”
When asked about his own plans, Perry says, “I will continue on the same course. If I got stuff that’s good, fine. If I don’t, I won’t worry about it.”
Astor Perry has produced a lot of “good stuff” in the 35 years of meeting the challenge.