Photography By Rick Ziesing
Bill Radler, breeder of Knock Out Roses

Feature

The Knock-Out

Saving the roses

By Mark Dixon |

Rose lovers like to think of their favorite flower as a gift from God. And that’s true for those whose favorite is rosa rugosa, the wild rose which grows in dense thickets along the highway and is considered an invasive pest.

For everyone else, the rose is a product. Except for their wild ancestors, all the roses in our gardens are the result of cross-breeding and commerce. Some were bred for color, some for scent, some to grow in a certain climate, some for long or abundant flowering. In that sense, roses aren’t much different than automobiles, hairstyles, or furniture.

Sometimes, though, an entire product goes into decline. As a product category, for instance, men’s suits may be forever diminished by the trend to casual attire.

The rose had a similar problem as the 20th century drew to a close. Sales were in free fall; live plant sales dropped from 40 million in the early 1980s to about 20 million, despite a larger population. Roses had developed a reputation as hard to grow. They required a lot of water. They were subject to disease. And they attracted bugs such as Japanese beetles, which devoured blossoms and leaves alike.

“Over the past 20 years, care became an issue,” says Steve Hutton, president of Conard-Pyle, West Grove, the nation’s largest marketer of roses with 10 million plants under cultivation. “People just didn’t have time, with two working family members, to garden the way they used to.” Increasingly, Conard-Pyle grew and sold other types of plants—perennials and rhododendron.

Then came “Knock-Out,” a cherry red shrub rose tailored to satisfy the neglectful habits of modern gardeners.

Then, in 2000, came “Knock-Out,” a cherry red shrub rose tailored to satisfy the neglectful habits of modern gardeners. It was impervious to bugs and black spot, bloomed from frost to frost and was winter hardy. Knock-Out even cleaned itself, dropping its spent flowers, so gardeners don’t have to dead-head it. In that first year, says Hutton, Conard-Pyle sold 135,000 plants. In 2007, it sold four million plants. Add the three pink varieties of Knock-Out introduced since 2000 and last year’s total was nearly six million.

Conard-Pyle “would be a much smaller company today,” says Hutton, if not for Knock-Out.

“To tell the truth, it saved Conard-Pyle (as a rose grower),” says rosarian Patricia Bilson, vice president of the Philadelphia Rose Society. “Even landscapers are using it.” Bilson, who gardens in Paoli and has three Knock-Outs in her own yard, sees the new rose as the most important industry development since Conard-Pyle introduced the Peace rose in 1945.

Ultimately, Bilson says, Knock-Out may save the rose, period. Success with Knock-Out will encourage average gardeners to try other roses, which, in turn, will also improve as Knock-Out’s low-maintenance qualities flow through the gene pool. And mass demand is what encourages rose breeders to continue to experiment and develop new products. So, even rosarians unfazed by roses” maintenance issues are cheering for Knock-Out’s success.


Founded before the Civil War as a tree nursery, Conard-Pyle did not even sell roses until 1868, when then-owner Charles Dingee added them at his wife’s request. The company later distributed the nation’s first mail-order rose catalog, but its dominance in the industry is due mostly to Hutton’s predecessor, Robert Pyle (1877-1951).

Pyle came to the business in 1898 after graduating from Swarthmore College. His primary contribution was as a businessman and a marketer. As soon as he took over, he narrowed the company’s focus exclusively to roses and moved to “brand” what had previously been a generic product. It was Pyle who coined the trade name “Star Roses,” which Conard-Pyle uses today.

In the 1920s, as a grower and an officer of the National Horticultural, Rose, and other societies, Pyle lobbied Congress for the right to patent plants. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 afforded protection to plants reproduced by “grafting, budding, cuttings, layering, division, and the like, but not by seeds.” This allowed Conard-Pyle to collect royalties on its creations, which later brought the company a great deal of money.

Pyle excelled at drawing media attention. In 1941, when Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg arrived in the United States as a refugee after Germany took over her country, Pyle met her at a New York airport with a large bouquet of “Grand Duchess Charlotte” roses. In 1946, he airmailed an arrangement of “the world’s tiniest roses” to Clementine (Mrs. Winston) Churchill, then an object of popular sympathy after her husband was defeated for re-election.

Pyle’s biggest marketing stunt, however, was the Peace rose. This pale-gold hybrid tea rose was received for testing from a French breeder in 1940, just before France surrendered to Germany. Conard-Pyle found it promising and introduced the rose—previously known only as #3-35-40—as “Peace” at the 1945 Pacific Rose Show. When Pyle told the crowd that “this greatest new rose of our time” had been named for the world’s “greatest desire,” employees released caged doves.

The public was tired of war, so Pyle’s timing was perfect. And his marketing built Peace into a legend as the rose that escaped the Nazis and made its first public appearance on the day Berlin fell. (In fact, Berlin fell several days later.) When the United Nations was organized in San Francisco that fall, Pyle paid hotel bellhops $1 per rose to put a Peace in each delegate’s hotel room with a note that read, “We hope the Peace rose will influence men’s thoughts for everlasting world peace.”

Peace was a huge success. It won the American Rose Society’s (ARS) gold medal in 1946 and more than 100 million plants have been sold in the years since.
But because Peace is a hybrid tea rose, it is one of many roses to have fallen out of favor in recent years. Some rosarians believe hybrid teas have even caused roses” declining popularity.

Hybrid teas date only to 1867. Before that time, roses fell into two broad categories, wild roses—which provided the breeding material—and what gardeners now call old garden roses. Old garden roses are hybrids of wild roses developed in the 19th century and before. Typically, they are fragrant, cold hardy, and disease resistant. Most bloom only once a year—typically in June.

In 1867, rose breeders crossed two old garden varieties—the tea rose (named for the resemblance of its fragrance to that of Chinese black tea) and the repeat-blooming hybrid perpetual—to produce the pale pink “La France,” the first hybrid tea. La France became the foundation for an entirely new class of climbers and shrubs now known as modern garden roses.

In the 20th century, the popularity of hybrid teas eclipsed all others. Gardeners liked their season-long bloom. Flower arrangers liked their large blooms, diverse colors, and long, stiff branches (older roses often flop on weak stems). On the down side, they don’t have much foliage or fragrance and the plants are more susceptible to disease.
Pyle was a major advocate of hybrid teas, whose maintenance issues struck him as no big deal.

“Sulphur for diseases and arsenate of lead for insects can conveniently be put on together, in a rather simple application,” he wrote in his 1906 book, How To Grow Roses. “The nicotine preparation (also for insects) is used separately. Thus, no matter what afflictions may threaten the roses, thorough and continuous dusting or spraying with sulphur and arsenate of lead or an approved equivalent will take care of most of them, and nicotine need be used only when necessary.”

That sort of work has discouraged many would-be gardeners. Reducing the work is the goal of independent rose breeders such as Wisconsin’s Bill Radler.
Radler, recently named a Great Rosarian of the World by a consortium of organizations including the ARS, developed Knock-Out in his 1.5-acre backyard in suburban Milwaukee. A retired botanical director, Radler introduced Carefree Sunshine, a blackspot-resistant yellow shrub rose in 2001 and Ramblin” Red, a winter-hardy, blackspot-tolerant everblooming red climber in 2002.

“Even with successes, it didn’t take me long to realize that growing roses would be more fun if it entailed less work,” he says.

According to Radler, Knock-Out was the result of crosses he first made in the 1970s. The blossom itself first saw the light of day in 1989—and the odds against it were long. “Knock Out was the only seed in a hip from a reluctant female,” he says.

Radler chose Conard-Pyle to grow and distribute the rose primarily because of the company’s history and connections. “Conard-Pyle has about 50 licensees to propagate and grow roses,” he says. “And it was able to get them involved overnight.” More licenses meant a greater ability to get Knock-Out to the market. Plus, the company’s long history of marketing roses—the legacy of Robert Pyle—promised a bigger splash.

“Another company was very upset that it didn’t get Knock-Out,” says Radler, who gets a percentage of each sale.

But is it a great rose?

No, says Anne Raver, gardening writer for The New York Times. Mostly, she writes, “Knock-Out is easy—like petunias. A fast-food flower for the mass market.

“There are others of us who think a rose should be more than a bubblegum-pink ground cover,” she continues. Knock-Out roses, “have taken the fear factor out of growing roses. But do they make a garden interesting, even unforgettable? No.”

One of Knock-Out’s flaws, says Bilson, is that each flower has only 8-10 petals, whereas Peace has 25 and David Austin roses—a lush English variety—have 55-75. More petals mean flowers that are impressive up close—fit to be a corsage, for instance. Knock-Out mostly looks good from a distance.

But they’re easy. And after years—decades, actually—in which rose marketers promised low-maintenance, easy-to-grow roses that didn’t deliver, that may be enough.

That professional landscapers are planting Knock-Outs around shopping malls and professional buildings is hugely significant, says Bilson. Such installations are rarely pruned or watered and must look good all the time. “Landscapers use 20-30 plants at once,” she says. “And, in the past, they never would have used roses.”

The Paoli library on Darby Road has 8-10 pink Knock-Outs planted around its parking lot, Bilson notes. They get little air circulation, are never watered, and bloom constantly.

“If you want to add color around a building, what else can you plant once that will look good for 10 to 15 years?” You can’t do forsythia. You can’t do annuals. But Knock-Out gets quite big and is hot pink so, from a distance, it has impact,” she says.

So, there it is: The rose that looks good from 35 miles per hour. The market has spoken.

The Hunt Summer 2008  Issue

This article was published in Feature from the Summer 2008 issue.
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