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Hennessey On Roses

In England he would have been revered as an esteemed eccentric. In the United States a half century ago he was regarded as either a single minded crank or an unappreciated guru of roses. He published his own book rather than submit the manuscript to a committee of experts of the American Rose Society; it ran to three editions in twelve years. And he despised academics, rose experts, everyone who looked abroad for guidance in matters rosarian and those who abused his bare root roses by cutting them. In fact, he made his purchasers promise NOT to cut the roots of his roses as a condition of sale.

The 'he' in question is Roy Hennessey, a rose grower in the middle of the 20th century in a place called Scappoose, Oregon, about twenty miles outside the city of Portland. Hennessey was born in San Francisco on July 1, 1897. He was orphaned early in life and acquired an education mainly through his own efforts. All his life he displayed the kind of disdain that the autodidact frequently maintains toward the more formally educated; he despised 'eggsperts.' At one time he was involved as a longshoreman on the Portland, Oregon docks, reportedly as a union organizer for the organization that would grow to dominate the Pacific coastal trade. His enthusiasm for the job was such that he was advised to go into some other line of business or risk becoming fish food himself. In the early 1930's he apparently went into the nursery business, initially growing gladiolas and later roses. His business enterprise started in Hillsboro; eventually he relocated to Scappoose in the Columbia River area.

He seems also to have been an anti-tax crusader of some single-mindedness. And his progressive politics was reflected in a proposal made in one of his catalogs for a process of perpetual voting, the better to remove the rascals in office on an immediate basis. He would putatively have enjoyed the current continuous polling that bedevils American politics, although his suspicion of any 'authority' would have stymied any prolonged enjoyment of the process. Although he published essays and articles, he is primarily known now as the author of 'Hennessey on Roses.' In it he distilled and justified his beliefs about roses in prose sufficiently dense to require his wife to chase him about the property demanding that he explain further, give examples, and make the prose accessible to the average reader. For this reason he dedicated the book to her on behalf of 'the readers of the book.' Perhaps symptomatically, the dedication did not prevent the marriage from failing. At his death on July 1, 1968 in a Portland nursing home from hip injuries sustained in a fall, his obituary listed only a daughter in California and a grandson as survivors.

Hennessey never established cordial or even amicable relationships with his plantsmen contemporaries in Oregon; one observer noted that his reputation among his confreres tended to be on the negative side. This could be because he dissed their products while extolling his own as immeasurably superior. Nevertheless, his reputation among his customers remains positive, even admiring, despite the almost blatant abuse of their sensibilities with advice, exhortation, and dismissal of their inquiries. It is more than likely that his charm, even charisma, was best experienced at some distance rather than close up and personal. But the customers became part of a magic circle, at one with a kindred soul hostile to much that passed for conventional wisdom in the mid-century world. His catalogs became collector's items because of the iconoclasm and color missing from more conservative statements. Certainly he relished chastising the American Rose Society for every imaginable offense from charging for rose registrations to crediting his introductions and discoveries erroneously to others and a general policy of 'Get Hennessey!' Plantsmen who cover their errors by sending extra free roses and lambasting the customer were she to complain about the error in identification or transmission subsequently have a patron saint in Hennessey who apparently believed in attack as the best defense and policy. Despite these violations of basic human relations customer psychology, customers returned for more product, more acid-etched opinions, and more catalogs.

There are no citations in Hennessey's book because he believed that all the authority necessary for validation of his ideas was to be found in the excellence of the some ten thousand roses he grew and sold. Nor did he keep notes until it was time to write the book first printed and bound in 1942 by the West Coast Printing and Binding Company of Portland, Oregon. The cost: $3.50. If you were to check for comparison price shopping, a dozen books will range in price from about twelve to twenty-four dollars. Fair copies can be found in many used bookstores for about five dollars. At the time of his death he was planning a revision of the book containing an extensive chapter on 'Hybridity;' the new title was to be: 'The Old Man Writes.'

Hennessey was capable of clear, even vulgar prose; Ralph Moore recalls that letters from Hennessey were generally 'smoking.' Paula Ballin remembers that roses purchased from the nursery were covered with admonitions such as 'DO NOT PRUNE THE ROOTS' as well as messages extending from the front to the sides to the borders of invoices and postcards. Lily Shohan recalls being advised not to mix any manure or other trash into the hole with the roses, just good, clean dirt. Peter Schneider in his Burpee Expert Gardener series on Roses notes that Hennessey was responsible for the growth of good roses as well as considerable backache on the part of rose enthusiasts with his injunctions against cutting bare root roses. At times the plants sent by Hennessey had roots extending 3 and a half to 4 feet long. Hennessey's rationale for long roots was that the plant produced the root system consistent with its needs; otherwise, it would be wasting energy. Sufficiently long roots preserved and properly planted would ensure significant growth the very first year in the ground, rather than waiting for development to ensue some time thereafter. The penchant for cutting roots he attributed to cost-cutting nurseries and convenience seeking gardeners. Some of his contemporaries suggest that the reason for the long, long roots was due to the fact that Hennessey did not have access to chemical fertilizers or other rose food and thus the roots were indicative of the effort of the rose bush to skitter every which way in order to find nutrients in the soil somewhere.

Current instruction on planting bare root roses does not accord with Hennessey's concern about not pruning the roots. Amanda Beales in 'Rose Basics' (1999) suggests 'trimming any damaged or exceptionally long roots to the average length of the others.' (p. 52) Lance Walheim in 'Roses for Dummies' (1997) advises cutting off any 'broken or mushy roots. And while he does not advocate cutting roots just to shorten them, he does indicate that 'removing an inch or so stimulates new growth.' (p 205) Probably the antithesis of Hennessey's viewpoint would be found in the cardboard containers pioneered by Jackson and Perkins a few years ago. Of course, even Hennessey's contemporaries did not argue for the wholesale elimination of the root system; the Executive Director of the American Rose Society, R.C. Allen, argued in 'Roses for Every Garden' (1948) that holes should be dug to fit roots rather than the reverse (p. 80), while noting that most roots will not need pruning any more than the digging process in the original nursery provided. Allen even italicized his advice that if the roots do not fit in the hole without bending or twisting, the proper remedy was to make the hole larger.

Nor was Hennessey an advocate of full sun for roses. He argued that most rose writings originated in England where there was a 'decided dearth of sunshine and where full sun is not too "full" at that.' (p 96) He believed that the background of both Foetida and Tea roses in the modern hybrid teas necessitated either partial shade or dappled shade in order to demonstrate the most striking of color components, but also in order to prevent the plant from shutting down in the deadly heat of high summer. While most current books for beginners take note of the variable circumstances in the United States for growing roses and others finesse the question of 'full sun for roses,' few have chapters entitled 'The Shady Rose Garden' as does Hennessey.

Hennessey's greatest contempt was reserved for those who 'whacked' roses at pruning time; only partially tongue in cheek did he recommend that a 'few first class goats be hired rather than pruning shears in the hands of some professionals." (p 62) He believed that the practice of whacking a rose to the ground arose from the once prevalent European varieties that suckered a great deal and thus needed whacking in order to focus the energy of the plant into bloom rather than expansion. Modern hybrid teas contained sufficient tea rose influence to resent whacking and were provided with insufficient root areas to sustain strong development. Thus the recommendations to root prune at planting time reduced the amount of food available to the rose bush as well as providing entrance points for bacteria and other organisms harmful to the bush. Hennessey deplored the recommendation to prune low to two or three inches of cane because it depleted the ability of the rose to produce leaves to provide starch for the vigorous growth of the bush. He recommended that the rose grower become familiar with the particular rose and to prune according to its natural structure and growth pattern; in passing he stated that few rose bushes produce one bud to a stem once the natural vigor of the plant had been established.

Few modern writers agree with Hennessey in this regard. Walheim justifies pruning on the basis of improving flowering, maintaining the health of the plant, to direct growth and to keep the rose bush within decent boundaries. He especially recommends that hybrid teas be more heavily pruned in order to produce fewer but more spectacular blooms. (p 232) Beales recommends pruning first year plants back to three or four bud eyes and regular pruning back to about half the length of thick canes and a greater percentage for thin canes. On the other hand the studies from various sources indicate that light pruning with hedge clippers will produce floriferous plants although the need to remove twiggish and weak growth will remain.

The 1954 edition of Hennessey's book took up the question of budded versus own root roses. The decisive element for Hennessey was the fact that most rose customers do not want to raise a rose bush, but rather to plant one and achieve instant gratification. He noted that the life span of the budded rose was shorter, that budding permitted the introduction and circulation of weak and easily diseased varieties, and that various understocks were necessary given the geographical diversity of the country and the limited utility of most understocks. However, these downsides were counterbalanced by the speedy maturation of the budded plant and the vast turnover in the gardens of most rose customers through either boredom or the discovery of a newer, more exciting variety. Budded plants required care during the maturation process and a considerable number of own root plants were simply too weak to sustain successful growth throughout the country. On this question the 'eggsperts' still disagree. As the rose bush industry shifts from budded to own root roses as a consequence of economics, the weight of opinion may well shift with it until some other economic consideration necessitates a shift in practices.

Perhaps the world of rosaria has caught up with Hennessey four decades after his 1968 death. Or perhaps not. Only a few of the score of roses he bred or introduced in his long career remain in commerce: 'Robinette', a Hybrid Multiflora by Ralph Moore, 'White Ma Perkins', a floribunda, and 'Tzigane', a red blend Hybrid Tea available only in Europe. A significant number of his introductions were credited to Alfred Jones of Arkansas. A Google search delivers only a few references to his book; and only a few aficionados of the rose remember him or even know of his existence. Yet he remains a source of 'mentoring' for current students of the rose. Recently on the Gardenweb forums, someone cited his observations concerning the tendency of repeat blooming roses to sport to once blooming climbing forms and the paradox of a sport of a once blooming climbing form to sport to a repeat blooming bush. The fact that his observations are not tied to particular cultivars lends a timelessness to his writing; obviously, it is hard to take lessons on the basis of roses no longer in commerce or the communal memory.

In the years preceding the publication of 'Hennessey on Roses,' Hennessey wrote columns for the garden magazine of the 'Sunday Journal' in Portland. Much of what he wrote was distilled into a fourteen-page article in 1941 publication called 'Our Garden Book.' There much of what appeared in the larger book was foreshadowed with rather greater attention being paid to exhibiting roses and curing diseases. But the major thrust of the article was his contention that growing roses was easy. Too easy. The rose was so tough that it could withstand all kinds of torture under the guise of improving the rose even though the practice was illogical or even harmful to the rose. The rose simply out-toughed growers of roses no matter what they did. This tribute to roses permeates much of what he wrote, and at times he seems to have the fervor about protecting roses that characterizes people in the ethical treatment of animals movements.

But perhaps the real message in 'Hennessey on Roses' is his insistence that rose growers become thoroughly and intimately acquainted with their roses before making pronouncements, judgments, or irrevocable decisions. In fact the last page of his book argues against drawing any conclusions whatsoever about a rose on the basis of one year's experience with one or two bushes. In the long struggle to establish whether roses exist for man or man for the rose, Hennessey ultimately plumps for the latter. For him it is indefensible to sacrifice a rose for the ego of an amateur grower or professional 'whacker.' 'Hennessey on Roses' could just as well have been titled: 'Hennessey For Roses.' 

Author's note: I am indebted to the following people for e-mails and other correspondence regarding Roy Hennessey and the circumstances of his life:
Fred Edmunds
Paula Ballin
Lily Shohan
Sean McCann

They were all gracious enough to share their impressions and memories in an effort to help me recover the essence of the complex character known as Roy S. Hennessey.

Naturally, they are not to be faulted for any misinterpretation or error of fact on my part.

I am also indebted to the Librarians at both Multnomah County Regional Library as well as the local Hillsboro Library for their efforts in supplying information as requested.

All citations to 'Hennessey on Roses' refer to pagination in the 1942 edition.
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