He's seen roses with good flowers but bad foliage, good foliage but bad flowers. Roses prone to black spot, mildew, rust. Beautiful roses that died young, ugly roses that thrived. He's bred miniatures as small as your thumbnail, and crossbred them to give large, ranging plants shape. His search for the hardiest, most beautiful plants for American gardens has been so sustained, so discriminating, that rose geneticist David Byrne of Texas A&M University calls him the "David Austin of miniature roses." Marilyn Wellan, president of the American Rose Society, seconds this and adds, "I believe he is one of the greatest rosarians of all time."
FOR THE RECORD:
Rose expert —An article in Wednesday's Home section about rose breeder Ralph Moore mentioned his daughters Eleanor and Mona. Moore also has a son, Keith.
Yet the paradox about America's presiding rose breeder is that, insofar as Moore is known outside specialist circles, he is famous for his modesty. He seems reluctant to take credit even for his own creations. "It is so easy to say, 'I did this,' " he says, "when in reality it would be more honest to say, 'I was there when it happened.' "
Traditionally, April is his busiest time. He, nursery general manager Carolyn Supinger and production supervisor Burling Leong must beat the bees to the spring flush of flowers, capturing the roses at the moment just before they open, selecting pollen from male parts, dusting it on flowers from female breeding lines, then bagging the fertilized flowers so no other pollen intrudes.
But for the first time since he produced his first rose hybrid in 1928, Moore wasn't out with his pollen brush this spring. He was in the hospital battling hemolytic anemia. His daughter, Eleanor Bergthold, was at his side as he returned home earlier this month. Almost immediately, representatives from UC Davis arrived to go over arrangements for him to cede his property to the university, which plans to clear the roses and sell the land to fund a chair in rose breeding, named for Moore.
Others might have stopped work, however Leong was still moving through the flowers, gathering pollen in carefully labeled jars. Supinger was still sending out spring catalogs along with bookmarks carrying the poems that come to Moore when he's among the roses.
It feels tenderly elegiac, but according to an admirer and colleague of Moore's, Scott Lohn, a rosarian and proprietor of the Uncommon Rose in Corvallis, Ore., the serenity is not resolve in the face of crisis. It's a way of life.
"Sequoia Nursery has always had an out-of-time quality," he says. "Ralph's life has been his work. He's so lost in it, he and the people around him have created a little bubble in time. They aren't looking outside. It's this wonderful little time capsule where magic has been bubbling for decades."
The day of our interview, Moore is still recuperating after the only hospitalization in his 98 years. As Bergthold welcomes the photographer and me inside the bungalow next to the nursery, there is only one caution from the bright-eyed man seated before us. "I don't hear very well," he says. He doesn't shout. In fact, for a near-deaf man, he still has perfect pitch.
It is interview as guesswork: He takes questions when he can anticipate them or when Bergthold finds the strategic angle to his ear and shouts them. Later, Supinger and an assortment of self-confessed "rose nuts" fill in the blanks.
It's instantly clear why Moore is modest: He's Central Valley farm stock through and through. Boys too big for their britches hereabouts get their rears kicked.
Not only was he born in Visalia, he says, his father was too. His grandfather came from back East as a 20-year-old. They cleared oaks, farmed cattle, grew potatoes, tomatoes and melons. On the walls are all kinds of mementos: a box with his first grafting knife, photographs of his father's melon wagon.
His father had a "unique way of selling melons," he says. "They put bells on horses, which wagon drivers would ring before going around corners. He would let his competitors sell fruit in the midday sun, and keep his melons cool all day, then at dusk, as families gathered on porches, run his horses through town ringing the bells," he says with a laugh. "By the time he turned the wagon around, and brought it back through town, families would be standing at the curb ready to try something."
He opened his first nursery while still in high school — in his parents' garden, where he had his "first one-man rose show." He met his late wife, Ann, at the local Presbyterian church, then attended junior college. Soon they had two daughters, Eleanor and Mona. "I never took a course in business," he says, "I never took a course in botany, I never took a course in genetics."
No, the elder statesman of American rose breeding spent more time in his garden than in a classroom, in church than in university, and he is a creationist. Nothing will shake his belief that God created the rose before men like him started fiddling around with it.
Though he was crossing roses in the 1920s, his first serious breeding was not in roses but in crape myrtle and lilacs. He bred the 'Blue Skies' lilac from Monrovia. ("I think it's more lavender than blue," he says.)
The path to rose-breeding was set in 1935, when he saw his first miniature rose, 'Roulettii,' a tiny specimen out of Switzerland, and he was hooked. Soon he was working with it and a miniature out of England, 'Oakington Ruby.' As he set up Sequoia Nursery in 1937 with "$800 and a dream," he saw the potential for miniatures for patios, children's gardens, window sills.