Creating the nations favourite flower in Hitchin

PUBLISHED: 15:14 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013

Rosa 'Cardinal Hume'

Rosa 'Cardinal Hume'

No garden is complete without roses, but did you know it takes several years to create a new one? Philippa Pearson heads to Harkness Roses in Hitchin and finds out how to breed roses

HARKNESS Roses and Hitchin have been synonymous since the late 1950s when the company moved down to Hertfordshire from Yorkshire. One of a dying breed of traditional companies, the Harkness family have been breeding roses since 1879, Gertrude Jekyll was a prominent customer, and today the work continues with brothers Philip and Robert, the fifth generation.

Harkness are renowned throughout the world for breeding reliable roses with outstanding flowering performance in gardens: who hasn't heard of 'Ena Harkness', a gorgeous velvety red scented tea rose? I can remember my grandmother growing some in her garden and it's still a firm favourite with gardeners. One of the first nurseries to exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Harkness use this prestigious horticultural event to launch new varieties and each year unveil three or four new roses.

One of the first nurseries to exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Harkness use this prestigious event to launch new varieties

Breeding roses is not for the faint hearted. It takes several years from selecting the ideal 'parent' plants to production of a brand new rose and the process takes in many different hurdles along the way. Things begin in May when breeding stock is pollinated by hand; these roses are selected for special characteristics such as flower, perfume, growth habit or disease resistance, amongst other qualities. Many cross fertilisations from different roses are made on one plant, it's a painstaking process, seed pods are then harvested from October to November. Around 4,500 pollinations are made each year and each seed pod contains around 20 seeds, each one in theory leading to a unique new plant. For the seed to germinate, it needs a period of exposure to cold, called vernalization; after this, seed is sown in late December to early January. By March, the seed has germinated and the first flowers appear in May. At this stage, a massive selection process takes place as only the most promising and potential roses, around 700 to 1,000, are then chosen to be grafted onto root stock for field trials.

Near the nursery, fields have row upon row of roses in various stages of maturity. Here, over five years, the roses are trialled for all year round disease resistance, individual characteristics, tall or small plants, colour range and perfume. The reason the field trials take so long is to allow for the varying weather and climatic changes each season which can affect growth, pest and disease issues and flowering each year. To get perfection, you have to be tough and incredibly patient: out of the 4,500 potential new roses sown from seed each year, only a handful will eventually be launched as a new rose. Many roses are launched for charities and worthy causes: 'Compassion', with pinky-orange flowers and heavily scented was launched in 1972, the first charity rose from Harkness.

Visit the gardens
R Harkness & Co Limited
The Rose Garden
Cambridge Road
Hitchin SG4 0JT
0845 331 3143
The nursery is open seven days a week from 10am to 4pm

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