Roy Hennessey (1897-1968), plantsman, rosarian, political agitator, iconoclast and eccentric, established a rose nursery in Oregon, in the early 1930's. Over the course of some thirty years, he issued catalogs, commentaries, and instructions to his customers.
Frequently that commentary contradicted conventional wisdom. He insisted that purchasers of his rose plants not cut the roots of rose plants; he was convinced that roses could well need shade against the rigors of the afternoon sun; and he frequently derided the pruning of roses within an inch of their lives. He feuded with the American Rose Society over the question of fees for registering roses, regarded the adoption of the floribunda class as 'ballyhoo,' and generally rejected the recommendations of 'eggsperts' whose advice was based on either conditions in England or those in the eastern United States. Not only did Hennessey advise his customers not to prune the roots of his bare root plants, he also refused to sell polyanthas unless the orders were for three or six at a time.
While many regarded Hennessey as a guru of some great practical wisdom—especially after the publication of his book, 'Hennessey on Roses,' in l942, others believed that all of his advice was self-serving and designed to overcome difficulties in his personal situation. For example, one prominent plantsman argued that the reason his plants had such long roots could be explained by the fact that Hennessey did not have the money for expensive fertilizers and thus his plants had to scrabble for nutrients in the soil. Or, that the reason his sold polyanthas in groups of three or six was a sales device rather than anything else.
As a result of an article on Roy Hennessey that appeared in the American Rose magazine in September, 2003, I received copies of letters exchanged between a California rosarian, Kenneth S. Buchanan, and Hennessey. Probably the easiest characterization of the letters would be that the phrase 'customer relations' and Hennessey tended to be strangers.
Kenneth S. 'Buck' Buchanan was one of the original members of the Sierra Foothill Rose Society in the Sacramento, California area. Even at the time of the founding of that group in l962 he was regarded as a veteran rosarian. He received the Bronze Medal from that society in 1999 and in the Spring of 2005 at the age of 91 was still 'playing' with supermarket florist roses, propagating them in search of better roses and relief from the aches of age.
The letters range in cordiality from a neutral "Dear Mr. Buchanan,' to the more casual 'Friend Buchanan in the Spring and Summer of 1960, as discussions matured regarding a rose propagated by Mr. Buchanan, a seedling of 'Climbing Souvenir de Mme. Boullet,' a climbing Hybrid Tea.
The information in the letters will be considered in terms of the topics presented rather than any chronological consideration.
The early letters contain information regarding orders and advice regarding particular roses and remedies for such problems as thrips and root knot nematode. Hennessey suggests the use of one of the 'newer persistent bugicides maybe even D.D.T. Will kill em.' They letters also indicate what is a continuing problem in reading Hennessey unedited: namely, that punctuation is occasionally non-existent. The first letter of January 22, 1954 contains seventeen lines of small print, eight or nine topics, and typing skills of the hunt, peck, and miss a few variety. In any case, the subject of root knot nematodes also elicits a recommendation for the use of Gamtox as a cure, although Hennessey does note that the cure requires that the land be fallow for a year. He recommends adding the Gamtox in powder form and working it deeply into the ground 'like salting a fish'. 1
The nematodes issue would be a cause of grief for Hennessey as an inspector in California would halt a shipment of Hennessey roses on the basis of harmful nematodes in l956. Hennessey's outrage was almost palpable in a December 6th postcard where he referred to the ban as a 'cooked up Deal…' He also noted that it was the first shipment ever interrupted in a twenty year span. Hennessey also stated clearly that the nematodes in question were not harmful and that he sent back the 'same order of roses right back to the state inspection service' and it passed inspection.
A March 30, 1955 letter suggests interspersing dwarf yellow marigolds with a stand of 'Baby Faurax;' since 'Baby Faurax" was a 'mass effect' flower, and thus would only be sold six plants at a time. . Hennessey believed that the combination would be beneficial to both plants. A June 15th letter in the same year returned to the theme of 'yellow flowers (NOT ROSES)' with Baby Faurax, noting that the effect would produce a sensation in Mr. Buchanan's neighborhood. '…(T)he more people who like your garden the more pleasure you get--.' The notion of a synergistic effect between roses and companion plantings is elegantly and playfully expressed in a short allegory by Hennessey in The Rose Annual of the National Rose Society in Great Britain in l953 entitled: 'Let's Fire the Experts'; this atypical article recommends as companion plants such perennials as '…Babys Breath, Zinnias, Delphiniums, and at the edges…Pansies, Lobelias, and Sweet Alyssum.' The juxtaposition of these companion plantings would lead to a condition in which chemical spraying of roses would not be necessary.
Hennessey did not maintain a display garden at his place of business in Scappoose, Oregon. In fact, he warned the townspeople not to direct potential visitors to his place of business. The June 15, 1955 letter notes that Hennessey just does not have 'any time at all for visitors….' He maintains that he doesn't need a display garden because most of his business is conducted by mail and does not need the comments of a 'half-baked Eggspert' who would offer opinions about the roses after one viewing. Since Hennessey devotes so much time to the field, being 'a one man band,' he has had to turn down offers from both the Australian and the American Rose Societies to write articles for their journals.
In the same letter Hennessey notes that it is his 'trouble that I like people and they always want me to talk which I like to do so I use up a lot of time when Visitors do find my place.' This benign self-image is at least partially negated by Ralph Moore's recollection that his first visit to the Hennessey Nursery occurred just after Hennessey's reported physical ejection of Robert Pyle of Conard-Pyle Roses from his fields for some alleged slight or another.
Wilhelm Kordes (The German hybridizer of note who produced 'Crimson Glory'): 'Kordes is Whanging away and he is a tough one to beat…' Hennessey seems to say that Kordes is the only one who knows roses sufficiently to make intelligent choices as to what rose to cross with another. (April 13, 1960)
Herb Swim (American hybridizer of 'Angel Face' and 'Mister Lincoln): 'I am quite friendly with Herb Swimso (sic) have no doubts of his honesty…' (October 12, 1962)
Dr. Walter LammertsLAmerican breeder of 'Queen Elizabeth' and 'Chrysler Imperial"0; 'who got where he was by FORTIT UOS(sic) CIRCUMSTANCES ONLY for his crosses are inane…' Later in the same October 12, 1962 letter Lammerts is referred to as an "Opportunist.'
Mike Dering of Peterson & Dering (a one time large scale Oregon Nursery also located in Scappoose) is referred to as a 'damn Crook' because of a use of the same rose 'Charlie Mallerin' in rose crossings. Hennessey was afraid that the use of a rose he had selected for crossing would permit Dering to 'stumble onto' what to use with 'charlei (sic) Mallerin.' This desire to maintain secrecy about the origins of roses seems to be a fairly constant theme in the later letters.
David Gilad (Israeli rosarian and one time President of the World Federation of Roses) is referred to as 'so very brilliant.'
And Hennessey notes that he and Albert Jones, his partner in Arkansas had never had any formal agreement between them .
Most of the roses attributed to Roy Hennessey or his partner, Albert Jones, have long since moved out of commerce and into the history books or obscurity. A Jones Hybrid Tea, 'Lemon Elegance,' is still offered in Australia and India, per the Combined Rose List 2005. Although 'Artiste' is listed as available at Vintage Gardens, the search engine at that site finds no matches for an inquiry re: 'Artiste.' Of the roses mentioned in the correspondence, many are still available, but usually in boutique nurseries, and one rose mentioned as a rose with possible patent potential (Galveston) is not even listed in Modern Roses 11. Nor is any particular light shed upon the roses in comparison to the commentary available in the Hennessey catalogs.
Sometime in the spring of l960, Kenneth Buchanan sent a seedling of Climbing Souvenir de Mme Boullet to Hennessey for evaluation or consideration. Hennessey liked it enough to encourage Buchanan, but, typically, warned that the climate for the introduction of new roses, especially once blooming roses, was not propitious. Actually, he warned that new roses were 'a Dime a dozen.' Hennessey bragged that he was the only one in America carrying Climbing Souvenir de Mme. Boullet
Hennessey instructed Buchanan to send budwood in August, wood that had flowered with foliage retained except for the stem end. Hennessey allowed as how the plant was a once bloomer, it might be improved upon by judicious and determined selection of repeat blooming plants, a feat he clamed to have accomplished with 'Paul's Scarlet Climber.' Buchanan was instructed to send at least 25 buds in order to assure that there would be ten plants. Actually, Buchanan sent enough budwood for 45 plants at the Scappoose nursery site.
On March 17, 1962 Hennessey resumed the correspondence with reference to Buchanan's excellent seedling and encouraged him to cross the pollen of his seedling with the tea rose, Louise Baldwin. He cautioned him not to mention this plan to anyone for fear that the 'bigfellows' would start 'makin em by the thousand once they heard I said….' In an earlier message, he had cautioned Buchanan against giving any of his seedlings away since '…with things of value some people will surprise you.'
Hennessey gave detailed instructions on how to make the cross between the Buchanan seedling and the tea rose; he recommended planting the seed as soon as it is ripe—in fact, '…IMMEDIATELY AS REMOVED FROM SEED POD' in soil sterilized by heat with a small bit of 'YEAST.' The purpose of the yeast was to deteriorate the binding in the walls of the seed capsule to allow the seed to germinate. The yeast was to perform the same functions as Captan, a commercially produced fungicide that is still used by some hybridizers to prevent mold on seeds. This interchange seems to represent what Hennessey referred to as a 'partnership' arrangement. Hennessey would supply the knowledge of roses and the suggested crossings while the other person would provide the actual physical tasks of making the cross, harvesting and germinating the seeds, and growing the seedlings. This would be a classic Hennessey maneuver in which he could marry his knowledge and lack of space, time, and money to that provided by the 'partners' who would have the space, time, and funds. A Hennessey weakness would be converted into a virtue or asset. There is no record of a cross between the Buchanan seedling and 'Louise Baldwin.' However, there is a 1960 registered rose by Hennessey and Jones called 'Artiste,' .a cross of 'Joanna Hill' and 'Souvenir de Madame Boullet.' It could well be that this notion of a 'partnership' is the source of difficulty in attributing roses to Hennessey and his partners, since the ideation of the rose crossing would be separate from the actual execution of the task.
The Buchanan seedling became 'Kenneth S. Buchanan' in the 1963 Hennessey catalog. The descriptive paragraph listed it as a Climbing Hybrid Tea, 'the finest Copper Yellow bud and bloom of today.' As Hennessey explained prior to the appearance of the catalog, there would be very little money or sales involved since the main appeal of a once blooming rose would be in the southern parts of the United States.
The climbing Hybrid Tea 'Kenneth S. Buchanan; is now thought to be extinct. Mr. Buchanan's own personal plant was the victim of a neighbor's spray drift. Although cuttings were sent to Dennison Morey's Bionomics venture, that business came to an end and so did the rose. And so did the correspondence.
In the 1950's there was a popular political concept known as 'commercial tenuousness;' it was used to explain why political conflict in the United States tended to be regional rather than economic or social class in expressive modes. Basically, it held that businesses, in order not to alienate customers, muted economic and social differences with their customers, and focused on regional and far away conflicts; that the dislike of the distant was unifying, whereas an emphasis on nearby social and economic differences was much too risky and reinforced dangerous social cleavages. It is doubtful that Roy Hennessey ever heard of this concept and it is almost certain that he would have hooted and derided it. His writings, unedited by either his or another hand, reflect his populist background, his labor union activities and his contempt for almost all authority except that conferred by his own experiences and labor as well as the moral outrage common to the autodidact.
His view of the world is almost Manichean and he is very clear which side is that of goodness and light. His quarrel with the American Rose Society attempt to attach fees to the registration of roses in l962, the creation of the floribunda class, and a host of other quarrels only intensified his belief in the divided world. But he was not a fool. Despite his opinion of Lammerts, he sold and praised both 'China Doll' and 'Queen Elizabeth.' However an eccentric Hennessey might have been, he was not averse to a compromise where his business interests were manifestly at stake. And he was well aware of the power that adhered to those who were eccentrics: In the last letter to Buchanan, dated October 12, l962, Hennessey notes about himself: 'I am the only grower in America who people will trust enough to buy strange things from…' It is an interesting conceit to ponder whether Hennessey's oddities were psychologically and strategically reinforcing rather than self-defeating. In short, whether the claim by his detractors that he made virtues of his necessities; that the advice re: pruning the roots, use of shade, etc. were all dependent on his circumstances.
Will Tillotson, of Roses of Yesterday and Today fame, characterized his correspondence with Hennessey in the following way:
"In my lifetime I have sold probably many times the merchandise in volume dollars..where he has many times the knowledge of the intimate life of the rose…so as long as I do not "Claim" to know very much, Roy accepts my knowledge of selling and listens (occasionally) when I tell him to stop fighting the powers that be, every time they needle him by some unimportant disagreement."
(Letter from Tillotson to Buchanan dated October 29, 1955).
Perhaps at some level of consciousness, Hennessey was aware of the power of tilting at windmills as a method of establishing public trust, thus converting another overt liability into something of an asset.
1 DDT has been effectively banned for public use in the United States since 1972. Gamtox is a formulation, apparently, of lindane, currently banned for private use by gardeners.
2 All of the letters herein cited are located in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.