The Garden Journal of the New York Botanical Journal, pp 5‑6,14 (Jan‑Feb 1957)
Sam McGredy IV
The following is based on the speech Mr. McGredy made before the annual meeting of the American Rose Society, Portland, Oregon. June, 1956.
WHEN I BEGAN TO THINK about Ireland and its roses, I began to realize how crazy the Irish really are. Our climate is just about the most fickle to be found anywhere. The superabundant moisture which is a feature of our climate, is one of the heaviest handicaps we rose growers have to contend with. In fact, were it not that nature has here, as elsewhere, adapted the country to the climatic conditions which prevail, rose growing in the north of Ireland would he well nigh impossible. But the country is for the most part hilly or gently undulating, with abundant natural arteries for rapidly drawing away the superfluous moisture so that our plants do not get water‑logged nor our soil soured with stagnant moisture. "For the rain it raineth every day," is almost literally true, and the consequent humid atmosphere, although conducive to abundant growth, makes the growing of the thinner‑petalled varieties a matter of the greatest difficult.
The average temperature is low, and the rawness of the air even in the growing months with the ever‑present humid atmosphere makes one sympathize with the Frenchman, who described our climate as "nine months winter and three months very bad weather."
Even in a period of drought in mid‑July you can, in the early morning, wash your hands on the foliage of the roses. That these heavy night dews are of great advantage to the growth of the plants and assist the development of the bud is quite true. They also enable the Irish grower to enjoy a longer period of bloom, but the difficulty of preserving the flowers of pale‑colored varieties, which normally have thin petals is at times rather disheartening. It is for this reason that the floribunda class is making terrific strides in Ireland.
As you may know, Ireland is divided into two countries. The Southern Republic has a much drier climate most suitable for rose growing, yet it has never contributed anything to the rose world. The major nurseries are to be found in one small corner of the northeast within forty miles of each other. This part known as Northern Ireland is British and, contrary to general opinion amongst the Irish in Chicago and New York, we are very proud of that fact! As a race we are predominantly Scots‑Irish‑‑and the industry of the Scottish race probably accounts for the rose nurseries being found here, as rose growing could never be described as an easy occupation.
It is even more peculiar that Northern Ireland has become so famous for its rose creations. The drier climate of southern England is much more suited to hybridization than our own. Even with the aid of glasshouses it is difficult to get seed to ripen before winter sets in. Now the national joy of all Irishmen is to pull the legs of the English, and it gives us great satisfaction that eighty per cent of the roses fondly known in Great Britain as typical English roses were raised in Northern Ireland.
Against all these summer troubles of climate, we are blessed with a very mild winter. They are so mild that roses go into dormancy very late in the year ear and start growth again early in the spring. 10° F. of frost is very rare indeed. Consequently, hilling up is unknown in Ireland. When you think that our latitude is more than eight hundred miles north of yours here in Portland, we are in many ways very lucky.
My home town is called Portadown. Situated some twenty‑five miles west of Belfast it is mainly connected with the linen industry, and most of the eighteen thousand population work at some stage in the production of Irish linen goods. In the outlying areas, rose growing and apple growing are the major occupations. Like all the advertisement posters, the countryside is wonderfully green. Little white‑washed cottages with thatched roots are very common and while the mark of television can now be seen, the older women still stick to their black shawls and the men to their white clay pipes. As is well known, feudin' and fightin' are the natural leisures of the Irish; and when we not busy fighting amongst ourselves, we turn on our neighbours in the Irish Republic, and very occasionally we join together to annoy the English. In most parts of Northern Ireland the dialect is very Scottish, and nowhere do you find the typical brogue of the Hollywood movies.
Most of the land around Portadown was given to the English lords, as gifts for faithful service, in the early sixteen hundreds. One of these lords was named Obins, and he built himself a castle which was demolished during the eighteenth century.
Surrounding the castle a field of ten acres, which supplied the tenants with vegetables, was known in the town as Castle Gardens. This is part of our present nursery, and we have the Castle incorporated with a rose and shamrock in the family coat‑of‑arms. Consequently, our nursery has been associated with gardens and gardeners since the seventeenth century. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the land passed into the hands of a nurseryman called Grant. He built up a small local business in bedding plants and built one small propagating greenhouse.
My great‑grandfather, Sam McGredy I, was at this time head gardener to one of the aristocratic English families still living in the town. When Sam II joined him as assistant, they decided to start a nursery on their own and the Grant nursery was bought in the late 1860's.
This ten‑acre field with its one little greenhouse was the beginning of the McGredy rose tradition. Two or three years ago, when doing repairs to one of the cottages on the nursery, we came upon the cobblestones of the old castle courtyard still in perfect condition under the floor boards of the house. The first greenhouse was pulled down only last year to make way for a modern one. The panes of glass were about six by nine inches against our modern twenty-four by twenty-four inch glass. An old tunnel from the castle still runs underneath our land to disappear somewhere in the center of the town.
In the early days the McGredys were not interested in roses. Sam I was very fond of pansies and gained fame for these at shows as far apart as Dublin and Edinburgh. These flower shows are a peculiar feature of the British nurseryman’s life. Here in America the customer buys from a lavish catalogue or, after visits to gardens such as yours here in Portland, he contacts his local nurseryman. Not so in Britain. Our customers visit their local flower show and place an order with the visiting nurserymen there. Consequently, my own firm does some forty flower shows a year all over Great Britain, exhibiting anything up to six thousand blooms at each show. The gardeners prefer to see the roses before they place an order and take a very sceptical view of any catalogue.
Traveling around these shows Sam Il became interested in roses. At that time the hybrid perpetuals and teas were all the rage. Neither of these types was really suited for our climate. The hybrid tea made its appearance, and Sam II saw in this type a rose ideally suited for the Irish garden and decided to devote his life to its improvement. The McGredy hybridizing was done on a large scale from its start in 1897. Perfection of form and novel color were the quests. The first gold medal was obtained in 1905 for a mammoth pink H. T. called ‘Countess of Gosford.’ Since that time some seventy National Rose Society gold medals have been won by the family for new roses and many hundreds more for their exhibits of roses. Not content with raising ordinary hybrid teas, grandfather used numerous species including R. rugosa, cinnamomea, and foetida in his search for something new. This research paid rich dividends as two of the most famous early varieties, ‘Old Gold’ and 'The Queen Alexandra,’ had one or more of these species in their make-up; and all the subsequent McGredy novelties go back to these two varieties.
'The Queen Alexandra’ was, indeed, a sensation. It was the first red and yellow bicolor ever seen, and when Queen Alexandra saw it at the National Rose Society Show in 1917, she asked us specially to name it after her.
Even in those early days the Irish were a force to be reckoned with, as in the 1913 audit of the best roses of the National Rose Society over fifty percent were Irish introductions. Incidentally, the German 'Frau Karl Druschki' headed the list, and the old American E. S. Hill novelty ‘Mrs. ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ was consistently in the top twelve.
Grandfather's rise to fame was quite phenomenal. By 1926 he was the undisputed Rose King of Europe and was known throughout Britain as "The Irish Wizard.” His new roses gained first prizes consistently at every show in Britain against the best England could produce—no mean fact when you think that they had to be cut many hours before the English blooms to reach the show in time.
Many stories are told of him at these shows. The Irish have a great knack of getting other people to do the work while they sit around and watch. Sam I was no exception; he used to sit on a box at these shows directing his amateur friends and even nurserymen who were competing against him, while they staged his new varieties for him.
Before his death in 1926 he had raised a multitude of new varieties, some of which are still to be found in our gardens today. Some of these are ‘Mrs. Henry Morse,’ ‘Mrs. Chas. Lamplough,’ ‘Mrs. A. R. Barraclough,’ and ‘Margaret MecGredy,’ named after his wife. Margaret is still alive today and full of wonderful memories of the old days, when the nursery was still a small place and every inch was dug by hand.
A seedling from ‘Margaret McGredy’ and another McGredy rose, ‘Charles P. Kilham,’ gave Meilland his wonder rose ‘Peace’ in later years.
I think my father was even more of a rose fanatic than his father. A big man in every way, he carried on the business even more successfully. He was full of Irish “blarney,” and his ability as a speaker spread the fame of his roses far and wide. He visited the United States in 1934, and it was at that time that Jackson and Perkins and McGredy’s became acquainted with each other.
Whereas Grandfather was mainly interested in raising roses of perfect form, Sam III went for colour in his hybridizing, and it was really in his time that the McGredy roses became legend. ‘McGredy’s Ivory,’ ‘McGredy’s Scarlet,’ ‘Night’ and ‘McGredy’s Yellow’ were a few of his creations, By far the most famous of all his roses, however, was the rose named after my mother, ‘Mrs. Sam McGredy.’ Still our biggest seller after twenty-five years, ‘Mrs. Sam’ has no equal for its salmon-scarlet coloring in Great Britain. Funnily enough, Father had rejected this variety, but Mother insisted that it was the one she wanted—a case of woman’s intuition.
Unfortunately, Father was not spared to go on to greater things as he died suddenly at the early age of thirty-eight, when I was two years of age. I must be excused if I pay tribute to a man I never knew, yet have come to love and respect. He was a generous man who left many friends, but more important he did the supreme thing—he left the world a more beautiful place to live in. ‘McGredy’s Sunset,’ ‘Picture’ and ‘Rex Anderson’ were all seedlings of his, introduced after his death. ‘Picture,' I believe, is still popular in California.
In the years that followed, my Uncle Walter Johnston carried on the business. It was during this period that the firm really got its roots in the ground. A natural flair for business and a genuine love of roses, Mr. Johnston had the honor of being behind our All-American winner 'Rubaiyat.’ ‘Panorama’ and ‘Cynthia Brooke’ are others of his era.
By far his most difficult task, though, was to steer the nursery through thee war years. In the years 1938-39 people would not buy roses, and many plant went unsold. Onions, peas, and celery took the place of roses after that. The growing and marketing of these crops using special machinery was an awful headache.
We were probably slower than any other country to get over the effects off the war. We buy our stocks normally in Holland, and these were unobtainable for many years in any quantity. Our hybridizing house had been changed over to tomato production; consequently our whole strain for breeding was lost forever.
(Continued on page 14
ROSES (from page 6)
By about 1950 our rose production was back to normal, and I joined the firm after studying in Pennsylvania and at college in Ireland. My first thoughts were for the hybridizing department, and naturally I went to look for past records. Unfortunately, many of these had been destroyed in the wastepaper drive, so I was compelled to start from scratch. With no knowledge of plant breeding, the first couple of years were chaotic!
However, constant observation of the seedlings. such as they were, taught me a lot‑‑and at last I think I'm beginning to get somewhere. For the last two years my seedling production has been around the forty thousand mark, and I'm now starting to hybridize with my own seedlings. It will take three or four years before you will see any of the results, but I look forward to the day when you will have new roses from me as good, I hope, as anything raised by my forebears.
Generally speaking, my aims are much the same as my father's The floribunda is now on the scene though, and over fifty percent of my seedlings are from floribunda or grandiflora crosses. Color again takes pride of place, and I have been pleased to note a pronounced fragrance in many of these varieties.
I raise about a thousand seedlings every year by crossing well‑known varieties with some of the original species roses. Now these species are not attractive in themselves, but some have a remarkable resistance to black spot and others have almost thornless growth. The children from these crosses normally look terrible and flower only once a year, but through repeated crossing with these seedlings to selected garden varieties I hope some day to produce roses which are immune to black spot and almost thornless. This wonder rose, if it ever appears, will probably be an umpteenth great‑grandchild of the original species. Rose breeding is an exciting business.