Robert Neil Rippetoe
of Rancho Mirage, California, is one of the few successful breeders using a variety of 'Lady Banks' species roses. Most rosarians know the 'Lady Banks' roses by one of its many names ('White Lady Banks,' 'Yellow Lady Banks,' 'r. banksiae lutea,' 'r. banksiae banksiae' et al.), which reference its white or yellow, single or double blooms on a plant which vigorously scrambles up trees and covers buildings with ease. The plant features few prickles, pointed, disease resistant evergreen foliage, and long arching limbs which generally produce one long season of glorious fragrant clusters of single or double bloom. Not cold hardy, the rose thrives in Southern California and even repeats with scattered bloom whenever weather conditions suggest spring. The rose is notoriously difficult to use in hybridization and there are only a handful of successful hybrids, many of which are infertile and difficult to reproduce by either cuttings or budding.
Rippetoe is a breeder with substantial experience in the field of horticulture. Growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, he was captivated by the plants in his grandparents' garden, saving up his allowance to buy sweet peas and a wide assortment of cacti for the space his parents set aside for him. He was fascinated by nurseries and can still recall the names of some of the bareroot roses he picked out with his mother. He read extensively on plants and seeds in every book and catalogue he could salvage or obtain. In high school he joined the Ornamental Horticulture judging team in his small hometown; his team won the California state championship in 1977, with Rippetoe winning the honor of high individual in the state for plant identification. He earned an associate degree in Landscape Horticulture from Reedley College and advanced degrees in Horticulture and Nursery Management from Cal. Poly, San Luis Obispo. He has worked in various horticultural establishments doing everything from color displays to wholesale sales of ornamentals.
His personal garden contains several hundred roses, most of which have been collected to support his hybridizing efforts over the past decade or so. Rippetoe's fascination with 'Rosa banksia' goes back over 20 years. Part of his attraction to this species rose was its "thornless evergreen nature, as well as its vigor and resistance to disease and insect attack." These characteristics were undoubtedly some of the reasons other hybridizers have worked with this species over the years, and yet only a handful of hybrids resulted and even fewer remain in commerce. One such rose is 'Purezza,' a Quinto Mansuino of Italy hybrid of the mini 'Tom Thumb' and 'Yellow Lady Banks.'
A Beneficial Accident — or two
In talking with rose hybridizer Ralph Moore, his "early inspiration and mentor," Rippetoe learned that Moore had worked with some banksiae about thirty-five years ago; Moore eventually abandoned his work with the "problematic" banksias. Rippetoe just assumed the fruitlessness of working with the banksias and moved on to work with roses of greater promise.
However, in 2000, Rippetoe was in contact with Avery. C. Tunningley, a rose hybridizer in upstate New York who had been working with R. banksia banksia x 'Old Blush' crosses in his breeding program. After numerous attempts, Tunningley had developed a mere four seedlings, only one of which eventually prospered. The resulting 40-foot hybrid, nicknamed 'The Monster', produced double cerise colored blooms, but it rarely bloomed. Although double blooms are known for their lack of pollen, Tunningley provided Rippetoe with a Q-tip of pollen for his use, having pretty much given up trying to hybridize this rose himself. 'The Monster' has since been lost. Incredibly, Tunningley's provision of pollen to Rippetoe was the result of remarkable series of accidents: someone sent a specimen of the 'Lady Banks' rose in Tombstone, usually billed as the 'largest rose in the world;' the cross with 'Old Blush' was an afterthought because Tunningley was not familiar with the reputation of the Banksias as infertile or difficult to work with; and he had little real interest in the 'Lady Banks' as a source of a hybrid because it was unsuitable for his own climate in New York state.
Rippetoe received the pollen reluctantly, knowing the failure rate of R. banksia hybrids. The timing was also bad, as the weather was getting warmer in Rancho Mirage. Rippetoe had learned, however, warmer weather increases the chances of producing dissimilar hybrids even though it reduces overall fertility, so in some ways the heat might work in his favor. He had one rose blooming at the time which might serve as a potential seed parent under these climatic conditions: 'Lilac Charm' [Floribunda, LeGrice, 1962], an 'R. californica' hybrid. The cross took, and the resulting twenty seeds were sown without chilling. Only one seedling was produced. Similar to Tunningley's initial reaction to his young "The Monster" seedling, Rippetoe largely ignored his slowly developing seedling with distorted leaves and single mauve flowers, viewing it as an interesting but odd offspring of a mistake in pollination. Cooler weather the following fall brought out the R. banksia-type foliage, and Rippetoe finally realized he had a new hybrid banksia on his hands. He named it 'Lila Banks'® [RIPLILA], reflecting its 'Lilac Charm' and R. banksia banksia heritage.
Mother Nature is Fickle
According to the accepted rules of genetics, when a diploid (14 chromosomes) China or species rose is crossed with a tetraploid (28 chromosomes) rose like those of European heritage and most modern day roses, a sterile triploid (21 chromosomes) should result. 'Lila Banks'®, however, a cross between a tetraploid and a diploid, produced what appears to be a fertile triploid. In appearance, the repeat blooming 3' shrub is quite unlike the R. banksia family, although it exhibits the elongated, disease resistant, evergreen foliage and flower form characteristic of R. banksia. The 2" blooms are single to semi-double, lavender to mauve in color, mild-to-strong in fragrance, and are produced continuously throughout the season. This "rose for collectors of the unusual" will be offered on a limited basis next season by The Uncommon Rose.
That 'Lila Banks'® is fertile was confirmed by 'Riverbanks' [RIPRIVER], a cross of 'Antoine Rivoire' (a fragrant light pink Hybrid Tea rose of double bloom form by Pernet-Ducher, 1895) as the seed parent and 'Lila Banks'® as the pollen parent. 'Riverbanks', classified as a "Hybrid Banksia" or "Modern Shrub," is again a fertile triploid; it exhibits 2.5" semi-double fragrant pink blend blooms of up to16 petals in small clusters on a 4' x 3' shrub. In addition to proving 'Lila Banks'® fertility, Rippetoe's goal was to increase the potential for an evergreen rose with more modern flower form, a characteristic he hoped it would inherit from its seed parent, which it did. This prickly offspring still shows great promise and has set hips easily with a variety of pollen parents. The name is a combination of the names of the two parents. Rippetoe plans to continue using both 'Lila Banks'® and 'Riverbanks' in future hybridizing.
Hybridizing Roses in the Desert
The desert Rippetoe calls home experiences some of the most extreme and inhospitable climatic conditions in the country. Summer temperatures in the 100's are the norm, with spikes between 110 and120 F degrees for weeks at a time. This area is one of the driest areas in the country with only occasional winter rainstorms. Roses not only stop blooming in the hot summer months, they shut down entirely and refuse to grow. It is in this climate that Rippetoe has chosen to attempt to hybridize Rosa banksias. If Rippetoe could produce R. banksia hybrids with cooperative crosses under the best of conditions, it would be commendable at the very least. The fact that he's accomplished these feats in such a dry, hot and inhospitable climate is little short of a miracle. In the process, he may have discovered a new approach to rose hybridizing under certain conditions.
Darwin in the Desert
One of the traditional "rules of thumb" in rose hybridization is to chill the pollinated seeds for a minimum of eight to 12 weeks. Rippetoe had previously skipped this step on other crosses with some success and did the same in producing both 'Lila Banks'® and 'Riverbanks'. When asked about his novel approach, he shared the following thoughts:
I have a theory that seedlings derived without artificial winter conditions may be better adapted to warm winter climates. This is to say a degree of natural selection will help to preserve those seedlings better adapted to the natural environment the seed was grown in and thus be better adapted to the conditions there. It's not quite as simple as that as there are other factors that come into play. This is, of course, Darwinian evolution. I think if one is trying to develop roses naturally adapted to an extreme climate, I think the idea has merit, especially over time. Unfortunately in the real world it may take many generations to develop a cultivar truly suited to one particular climate, but if one starts with rose species and hybrids closest to those in climates similar to the one in question, things will progress more quickly toward achieving the desired goal.
As of December 2005, Rippetoe is witnessing his first germination of unchilled seed from 'Riverbanks'. Since 'Riverbanks' parent 'Lila Banks'® successful germination was also brought about without chilling, this suggests the compelling hypothesis that unchilled seeds from parents suited for a warm climate may not only be possible, but that the resulting progeny might eventually prove to be better suited for this climate. Should this theory eventually prove conclusive, Rippetoe may have shortened germination time considerably and opened the door for faster reproduction of certain roses in the future, particularly difficult species roses like 'R. banksia.' Rippetoe reports that John Starnes in Florida has recently had some success with this method.
In addition to the R. banksia species roses, Rippetoe has been investigating other roses suitable for use in hybridizing in warm climates. These include his own R. banksia hybrids 'Lila Banks'® and 'Riverbanks' as well as his recent import, 'Letizia Bianca' (a Mansuino R. banksia hybrid), and many other rose families he has researched over the years: Chinas, Tea roses, Bracteatas, Laevigatas, clinophylla hybrids and 'Bayse's Legacy' hybrids, among others. These roses all perform well in temperate climates, have disease resistant evergreen foliage, and lovely fragrant flowers. He hopes that 'Bayse's Legacy' hybrids will improve the likelihood of pricklefree offspring of his future roses.
The process of breeding roses is a long and often frustrating one. The results of any of the crosses Rippetoe is currently working with may take years to prove themselves, and any resulting hybrids may need to be recrossed again possibly multiple times to attain the characteristics Rippetoe is seeking. Although his approach using unchilled seeds and roses suited for his warm environment may help expedite the process, the stubborn nature of the R. banksias will always present a challenge.
His World Before Lila Banks
Robert Rippetoe has been hybridizing roses other than R. banksias for many years. His aim, is "to breed roses for the following qualities: an evergreen nature, Winter bloom, a pricklefree nature, ease of rooting, disease resistance, fragrance and a naturally elegant and beautiful habit which does not require pruning other than to shape the plant ...carefree low maintenance landscape shrubs." To this end, he has presented some lovely additions to the rose world. Their names, as noted below, are derived from either their physical characteristics or from individuals who have made an impact on his personal life. "I think it's nice to name roses after those we know and love," he offers.
- 'Audrey's Rose' [RIPAUD]
- A 'Lilac Charm' self seedling, this Floribunda has lovely wavy mauve/mauve blend petals which open to reveal striking yellow stamens on a 2' x 2' plant with glossy dark foliage. 'Audrey's Rose' is named for Rippetoe's wife, "a Special Education Teacher who has more patience and empathy than any person I've ever met." Ashdown Roses is currently testing this rose and has propagated it on a limited basis. Ashdown is also testing several of its seedlings, and we will know soon if any of them warrant registration. [Private Gardens: Cliff (Orent), Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, CA, and Robert's Desert. Rose Garden, Rancho Mirage, CA.]
- 'Buttercream' [RIPBUTTER]
- A repeat-blooming 3' Hybrid China seedling of Mutabilis introduced in 2003 with 17 to 25 petals on 2" blooms ranging in color from apricot to light yellow to white; alas, no fragrance. The yellow tones are unusual for China roses, which adds to the attraction of this rose and led to the name of the rose. It is currently being tested by Ashdown Roses. [Private Gardens: Cliff (Orent), Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, CA; James Delahanty, Sherman Oaks, CA; and Robert's Desert Rose Garden, Rancho Mirage, CA.]
- 'Callista' [RIPCAL]
- A Sweet Afton x Abraham Darby cross, this shrub rose introduced in 2005 exhibits white, cream, pink and apricot tones in its 3.5" diameter old fashioned very double blooms of 26 to 40 petals with a strong citrus fragrance. The bush grows from 4' to 6' and blooms continuously. 'Callista' is the first name of Rippetoe's son's "girlfriend, and a lovely person. Callista also means 'beautiful' in Greek, which I thought was fitting." [Private Gardens: Cliff (Orent), Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, CA; and Robert's Desert Rose Garden, Rancho Mirage, CA.]
- 'Cherry Drop' [RIPCHER]
- A sport of the China rose R. serratipetala, this beguiling rose offers quite a punch for its diminutive size. The 2" blooms are deep, crimson or rose red on the outside of the cupped and quartered blooms with white to light pink center petals. The 3' x 4' plant blooms continuously. The fragrance is very strong and fruity. I personally loved this rose the minute I saw it at Sequoia Nursery in September 2004, and so did everyone else as I walked around with it. Ashdown Roses and Sequoia Nursery currently offer 'Cherry Drop'. [Private Gardens: Cliff (Orent), Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, CA; James Delahanty, Sherman Oaks, CA; and Robert's Desert Rose Garden, Rancho Mirage, CA.]
- 'June Anne' [RIPJUNE]
- This lovely pink to light pink Noisette is a cross of 'Champney's Pink Cluster' x 'Katherine Zeimet'. The small, 1" pompon-style very double flowers appear in clusters on an 8' to 10' bush, which can be grown as a shrub or trained as a climber. The blooms are also strongly fragrant. Rippetoe has named this rose after his mother, "a fun loving Southern lady of resilience and fortitude." After testing it in his garden, Jim Delahanty has encouraged Rippetoe to get 'June Anne' into distribution. [Private Gardens: James Delahanty, Sherman Oaks, CA; and Robert's Desert Rose Garden, Rancho Mirage, CA.]
The Road Less Traveled
Robert Neil Rippetoe is very modest but upbeat about his rose creations. "I try to emphasize to those inquiring about rose culture how easy the whole thing can be if one doesn't take it too seriously. I think a lot of people are intimidated by roses, when in fact they are one of the easiest plants one can grown, even from seed." The circumstances leading to his successes with 'Lila Banks' and 'Riverbanks' represent a breakthrough in the history of rose hybridization. Robert Frost's lines in 'The Road Not Taken' are apropos:
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
My sincere thanks to Robert Rippetoe for his support and patience in providing information for this article, as well as to James Delahanty for his talents as editor.
References used and quoted in the article include:
The Indian Rose Annual XX, 2004, by the Indian Rose Federation
HMF Ezine "Banksia Hybrids, a New Beginning, June 2005