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The Rose Show and the Polyantha

From the early days the American Rose Society and its spokesmen have stressed that the rose show is a most valuable educational tool in promoting the growth of roses and rose culture. In the 1922 American Rose Annual J. Horace McFarland stressed that the rose in essence was a 'condensed, even if temporary rose-garden under a roof.' Further, he elaborated that the great national and even international rose shows did little to stimulate amateur interest in roses growing. He celebrated the small one-day shows held in the midst of the most floriferous rose months.

Of course, one question that needs examination is exactly what is it that rose shows are supposed to do to educate people about roses. Some light may be shed on the educative functions of the rose show by looking at the interaction between rose show outcomes and the class of polyanthas. While it is possible to speak of the educational effects of the rose show in terms of creating 'emulative' effects among the attendees as a rose show, there are also certain consequences on the class of roses itself. Such may be the case with the effects of the rose show on the polyantha.

Polyanthas as a rose class have been cast for oblivion since the devastating pronouncement of McFarland in 1933 to the effect that the imitations of 'Baby Rambler' and 'Orleans' were '"foredoomed." And, to check current American catalogs, you might think that the polyantha class had entered a Federal witness protection program, since they tend to be labeled by function—patio roses, ground covers, landscape roses, shrublets, and even Old Garden Roses (sic!)—as opposed to being called polyanthas. At least one educational function of the rose show has been to maintain the integrity of the class of polyanthas qua polyanthas.

With reference to polyanthas, the 'Guidelines for Judging Roses' only particularize that polyanthas were the forerunners of the floribunda class and that polyanthas are normally only exhibited in the spray form as opposed to a one bloom per stem format. And yet this exclusion tends to reinforce the integrity of the polyantha class as one characterized by cluster form. To put it another way, polyanthas that do not produce cluster forms tend not to win trophies in the polyantha class because they are ineligible to be entered. Even a rose like 'Polly Sunshine', which tends to bloom only in clusters of two or three tends not to be eligible and, in fact, has not won a polyantha trophy over the five year period from 2000 to 2005 although its introduction was in 1999. Topaz, a rose which also tends to bloom in clusters of three has also been excluded from the trophy table over the last five years. And one could surmise that 'Red Sweetheart', despite its 'Mlle Cecile Brunner' parentage would fare similarly had it been classified as a polyantha, because of its early habit of producing single stem blooms. The exclusion of atypical roses from the trophy table reinforces the definition of the polyantha class as one characterized by clusters of blooms or sprays.

Another educational function of the rose show would be the extent to which the trophy table represents the constituent elements of the particular class. The data for the last five years of rose shows gathered by the editor of the Rose Exhibitor's Forum, Robert Martin, Jr., indicates that some 761 trophies were awarded to 70 different polyanthas. Even allowing for inclusion of dubious but legal entries such as 'Caldwell Pink' (since identified as 'Pink Pet', a China or perhaps a polyantha again by the time this writing appears), or one or two other possible errors, 70 or 67 different winners is fairly inclusive as indicative of the polyanthas available in the country at the time. An estimate based on the data found in the Combined Rose List of 2003 indicated that about 113 polyanthas were available for purchase in the United States. Thus, nearly 62% of the polyanthas that were technically eligible to win a trophy actually did so. From 2000 to 2004, the number of different polyanthas winning per year fluctuated between a low of 35 of 2000 to a high of 42 in 2001. Looking at the data generated, a survey of the leading polyanthas to win trophies in the Spring 2005 Rose Exhibitor's Forum, Bob Martin concluded a study of 'Diversity at the National Bank' with an observation that 'there is a lack of diversity on the show tables…' In studying bankers and frequent trophy winners, the data certain supports that conclusion. But if you consider the total number of trophy winners compared to the number of polyanthas available for sale in the country, the picture of diversity emerges a little differently. If sixty-two per cent of the available polyanthas in the country win a trophy over a five year period, there is more diversity available than a study of the leading winners might indicate. The percentage of polyanthas exhibited would surely include numbers of those not likely to win for various demerits (see the comments about 'Polly Sunshine' and 'Topaz' above). Moreover, it is reasonable to suppose that even the one-time winners appeared on the show tables frequently enough to establish some familiarity among judges.

If you divide the trophy winning polyanthas into the respective 'families' of polyanthas, primarly by parentage, the four great families of the polyantha class garner a little over 80% of the total winning numbers. Polyanthas descended from the Baby Rambler/Orleans group won 25.79% of the trophies over the five year period from 2000 to 2004; those descended from 'The Fairy' won 24.20%; Koster scions gathered 20.04% and tea poly crosses merited 10.23%. As might be expected, since it is offered in over half the catalogs listed in the Combined Rose List, 'The Fairy' wins most frequently, although it would be a mistake to assume that there is a direct correlation between the number of nurseries offering a particular polyantha and winning trophies. The second most popular polyantha as ranked by the number of nurseries offering it in the Combined Rose List would be 'Mlle Cecile Brunner,' at 85 nurseries of some 307 total; however, it only won 14 trophies over the five years and ranked number 16 in that regard. Perle D'Or, another old favorite with some 70 nurseries offering it only gathered five trophies and ranked number 26. However, it is fair to assert that the representation of polyanthas as indicated by the trophy winners would be reasonably representative of a class of roses not so evenly distributed among commercial nurseries. The point is, of course, that the rose show represents the class more fairly than more commercial agencies might.

Another aspect of the educative function of the rose show is to utilize McFarland's conceit of the rose show as a moveable feast, a kind of temporary rose garden under a roof in terms of the access provided to a viewer. Access may be indicated by the number of different polyanthas available to someone viewing them. As noted above, a viewer of rose shows could encounter at least 70 different polyanthas viewing rose shows. However, the same viewer would find 118 polyanthas (including 22 'found' roses) at the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, 35 different polyanthas at Huntington Gardens in San Marino, Ca., and 21 different ones in Descanso Gardens, in La Canada, California. The Huntington has a strong representation of tea polys and ramblers (20 out of the 35) and Descanso has the cachet of offering 7 of their polyanthas as part of their Alister Clark selection of Australian roses. There are also private gardens in California featuring large numbers of polyanthas—Cliff Orent's large gardens in the Palm Springs area with nearly a hundred polyanthas, including all seven of the de Ruiter dwarfs, Barbara Gordon's famous gardens in the Bay area and the author's 107 polyanthas in Sherman Oaks. However, some of these gardens are available for viewing via garden tours or privately arranged viewings, none of them is open to the public on any consistent basis. The point, of course, is that the rose show may be the only easily accessible place to view a wide range of polyanthas, even allowing for regional differences. While the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden seems to be the most representative of all of the polyanthas, the two excellent Southern California gardens are less so by virtue of the sheer difference in numbers, or the collecting process over the years.

Of course, the degree to which the rose show articulates a form and emphasizes that form through the selection of roses which best approximate it, is an important form of education in the most Platonic sense of approaching an ideal. But the preservation of the taxonomic features of a rose class, the existence of that rose class and the wide representation of its various families, exemplify a touch of Aristotelian diversity to the educative functions of the rose show.

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