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Ben Williams: Father of the Mini-Flora Rose
J. B. Williams

The Mini-Flora rose has burst on the rose scene recently like an overnight rock star. Rose publications everywhere have articles about the Mini-Flora. The Recent Spring issue of the Exhibitor's Forum was devoted to the Mini-Flora rose. But like most overnight stars the Mini-Flora's recent success is due to the long and persistent efforts of its creator J. Benjamin Williams.

Ben, as he is know to many of us, first created these roses in 1973. They were to small to be floribundas and too large for miniatures, so he decided to name them Mini-Floras. He offered the name to the American Rose Society which turned it down with the remark that there were too many classifications. At this point Williams trademarked the name.

The Mini-Flora has been called by other names including sweethearts, cushion roses, macromini and patio roses. One of his first roses of this new group was Patio Patty introduced in 1975. But Ben's hybridizing efforts didn't start here. Ben' gardening roots go back to his boyhood days in La Plata, Missouri where among his many jobs was to help with the family kitchen garden. With his family having a hotel in this small town in the north central part of the state, Ben had many jobs to do. He remembers, "I would get up in the morning and help prepare food for the kitchen." After school he worked at anything he could get. This included shining shoes, soda jerk, cutting wallpaper, and being the driver fort the town doctor. This last job led to his first professional horticulture job when the doctor developed a golf course and Ben became the groundskeeper.

Later Ben became a booking agent for entertainment acts and developed his promotional skills while traveling from Georgia to Pennsylvania. He was planning to move West to become active in the motion picture business when he met his future wife, Lillian Roberts. She was living in Des Moines and was an Assistant to a Holly Sugar broker. She convinced him after they were married that they needed a job that was more secure.

A promise from a hometown friend led them to Washington,D.C. where he found a civil service job as a messenger. Advancing quickly, he was supervising delivery of General Accounting Office documents at the Post Office as our country entered World War II.

Much of his free time was consumed by his continuing interest in horticulture. Between taking night school classes through the Department of Agriculture in plant pathology and reading gardening magazines at home, his knowledge and expertise was growing. But like many members of his generation, now known as the "greatest generation", his plans were interrupted with a call to serve.

He was with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division as they moved across France and Germany. The Division took part in clearing the Colmar Pocket in early 1945, and on 15 March struck against the Siegfried Line positions south of Zweibrucken. The Division smashed through the German defenses and crossed the Rhine, 26 March 1945; then drove on to take Nurnberg in a fierce battle, capturing the city in block-by-block fighting. The 3rd pushed on to take Augsburg and Munich, and was in the vicinity of Salzburg when the war in Europe ended.

"From December 1944 to May 1945 I slept in foxholes, bombed-out buildings, old trucks, I never saw a bed."

Ben proudly but quietly remembers his service. Whenever you meet him a miniature lapel pin is always displayed on his suit. The pin consists of an infantry musket on a light blue bar with a silver border, on and over an elliptical oak wreath. It is the Combat Infantryman Badge awarded for combat against enemy ground forces.

His short time in Germany did have a positive effect on his future plans. An unexpected encounter with the hybridizer of the Bad Homburg gardens helped to set the stage for his future hybridizing efforts.

When he was discharged he returned to Washington,D.C. and worked as an auditor and investigator for the US Comptroller General until 1960. During this period he was involved with the Howard Hughes hearings and the McCarthy hearings.

In the meantime he had bought a home in Maryland which he landscaped primarily with azaleas, boxwood, privet, and lilacs. Like many new rose growers he ordered six roses from a magazine ad. "I expected big bushes, so when I got these four- or five-inch sticks, I thought I'd been robbed." By the second year, "I had five healthy rose plants and some pretty nice blooms" Then a friend suggested that he enter a rose show at the Smithsonian Institution. When he entered the area carrying his roses in a bucket of water, "The other flowers looked like jewels in a display case." His friend took him into the work area where other exhibitors were preparing their entries and helped him to identify, tag and enter his roses. "Tag them? I didn't even know they had names."

Ben now advises novice gardeners: "If you grow something, show it." When we came back at the end of the day, every one of the entries had a ribbon." Ben encourages new gardeners to get to know other gardeners. They will have a great opportunity to learn from them. He joined several local rose and plant societies including the Potomac Rose Society. Through this society he met Danish rose breeder Neils Hansen, who encouraged him to try his own hand at hybridizing. His activities soon led him to become active in the Annual Washington Flower Show held in the DC Armory and where he served as show manager from 1953 to 1960.

As he became more active with roses Ben soon became a judge and was judging the show he started in. It is always a pleasure and a learning experience to judge with Ben. His intimate knowledge of roses allows him to quickly determine the best rose. He always is willing to take the time to share his knowledge with other judges, exhibitors and rose growers.

While continuing to carry out assignments for the Controller General, Ben was both involved in special studies at the U. S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School in Beltsville, MD and was a garden consultant for Washington's Woodward & Lothrop department stores. There he selected plants and supervised displays. "We would have displays in every department, so that someone buying cosmetics might see a vase of roses, and they could order them on the spot."

His work as a horticulture consultant led to the establishment or contributions to rose gardens at the National Arboretum, Longwood Gardens, Wintur Museum, Hershey Gardens, Hershey, PA, Governor's Mansion, Annapolis, MD and the American Horticulture Society in Mount Vernon, VA. Most recently he helped with the renovation of the Jasper Crane Rose Garden in Brandywine Park, Wilmington, DE.

The opening ceremony was highlighted by the introduction of the Jasper Crane rose, a fragrant burgundy red hybrid tea. Hybridized by Ben it is featured at the garden's main entrance. The naming of a rose for a celebrity has become a trademark for his own company, J. B. Williams and Associates.

During all of the time Ben was studying and working, he had been developing a new series of rose varieties which had never been offered for sale to the general public. To do this, in 1972 he established his own company. Ben became an independent rose breeder, assigning new roses to various growers for evaluation and marketing.

His company now has roses in test beds and with contract growers in Arizona, California, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Canada. Within three years after starting his company two prize-winning roses Ben had developed were introduced. His floribunda 'Rose Parade' was an All-American Rose Selection for 1975 and 'Red Fountain', an outstanding red climber entered the market. Ben has stated that he considers 'Red Fountain' to be the perfect cross, combining the best qualities of both its famous parents. 'Blaze' provides clustered flowers and 'Don Juan' gives its deep, velvety red color. Ben says this rose has the ability to withstand extreme drought . This was proven with highway plantings that received no care but this fragrant rose bloomed continuously.

Ben now has over 160 roses introduced throughout the world and is a holder of numerous patents and trademarks on these roses. Some of his current introductions are 'Celine Dion', 'Scarlett Star', 'Delaney Sisters', the "Dutch Master Series" and the "Freedom Series".

Ben continues to be involved in many horticultural pursuits and nearly all facets of the industry. He gives generously of his time and roses and provides support to many of our National Convention. In 1996, he provided the ARS with the patron's rose. A cross between 'Miss All-American Beauty' and' Bride's Dream' it was named 'Miss All-American Dream'. He often will bring vases of cut roses to District and National meetings to add to the enjoyment of the attendees. During the recent Philadelphia Fall National Convention he worked with the Conrad-Pyle Company to provide all the display roses throughout the convention hotel. Ben also led the tour to the Conrad-Pyle display gardens and arranged to extend the tour through their work areas.

In addition to the breeding and introduction of high quality roses, Ben was very active in the Maryland Nurserymen's Association. He served as their Executive Secretary from 1974 to 1987. His tenure in this position was noted for his usual attention to the details of the office and for exceptionally good planning of events.

Ben created the Certified Professional Horticulturist Program. Starting from scratch, it took nearly three years for Ben and the CPH Committee to bring this Association service to fruition. For this Ben was awarded the Association's Professional Achievement Award. Ben has provided many trophies to both local and district societies in support of his efforts to bring the Mini-Flora to the show table.

His generosity continued when in 1999 he gave the Mini-Flora® Rose trademark to the American Rose Society. This time the ARS accepted the Mini-Flora and has established it as a formal classification of a new type of modern roses.

The Mini-Flora classification is now being used throughout the world. Ben has established a National Challenge class for the Mini-Flora. "The J. Benjamin Williams Mini-Flora Rose National Trophy" requires an entry of ten Mini-Flora roses, either one each of ten different varieties or two each of five different varieties; one bloom per stem, each exhibited in separate containers.

Ben is now working to establish a separate court at rose shows for the Mini-Flora that will establish it on an equal basis with miniature roses. As more people start to grow these appealing roses they will discover the Mini-Flora versatility. These wonderful roses fill a distinct niche in the rose world. They will to enable many people to grow roses that would be put off by the size and cost of hybrid teas. If it was not for his efforts over the last thirty years these roses may not have been currently available to us. As the originator of the Mini-Flora rose and his continuing promotional efforts on its behalf Ben deserves the title of "Father of the Mini-Flora".

Through the years Ben has worked developing all types of roses for many different people and purposes. This has led many of us to know one singular fact about him: J. Benjamin Williams is a man that loves roses.

Click here to view a list of his roses.

[HMF Editor - This article predates J. Benjamin Williams passing on November 1, 2006 at the age of 93.]
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