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The giant of miniatures

If you've ever looked at a miniature rose and wondered, "How'd they do that?" the answer is: a lifetime's work, and not by a "they," but a he. Ralph Moore. In a career spanning 77 years, the founder of Sequoia Nursery in Visalia has single-handedly created the market for rose bushes that could grow on a window sill. Virtually every miniature on the market is a hybrid stemming from hundreds of miniatures he has registered with the American Rose Society.

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.

He loved the challenge of miniatures. "A little thing has to be more perfect than a bigger one," he says, "because it's looked at more closely."

Breeding with miniatures, however, was not necessarily about small. A main benefit of crossing small plants was improving the shape, habit and foliage of big ones. "If there's one thing that Ralph has instilled in me," says Lohn, "is that the plant is as important, or more important, than the flower."

Moore's contribution is unique because nobody else had the patience to tweak the good traits from old roses, wild roses and miniatures. Early on, Moore realized that a rose the size of an oregano wasn't just cute, it was a mutant. The plants were often sterile. When seed was fertile, there was precious little to work with. Moore studied which ones made better pollen donors.

Once he found fertile lines, the only way to test them was to breed them. Out in the nursery, Supinger and Leong show how this is done, Leong demonstrating how she collects pollens, stores it and applies it to female recipients, and Supinger leading the tour to the nursery where flat after flat of seedlings spring from trays.

They typically raise thousands a year, Supinger says. Crosses are made in April, seeds from the hips are collected in autumn, then planted in winter. Next spring, they will have greenhouse after greenhouse of 8-inch-high seedlings bursting from the potting mix. "The first thing they do is bloom," says Supinger. "It's just amazing."

One hundred, maybe 200, graduate to bigger pots, she says, where they will be studied for form, shape, foliage. Then their odds of survival start looking like those of winning the lottery. Of the countless seedlings — hundreds of thousands? millions? nobody's sure — started on these grounds since 1937, only 500 plants have been selected for naming and release to the market.

Isn't that a bit harsh?

"It's necessary," says Supinger. "But sometimes Mr. Moore makes mistakes. But he admits it." One reject was rescued by a nursery worker, Sue Salvatore, who thought Moore had chucked out the wrong rose. When she brought back an armful of luminous tangerine-colored blooms, he not only released the rose but named it 'Thanks to Sue.'

Back in the house, Moore won't name a "favorite" rose. "I haven't bred it yet," he says. "It would be perfect." From his smile, it's clear that he believes only God could make that rose.

But evidence of partiality, if not favoritism, can be found in plants that he gives friends, plants around his nursery allowed to become mature shrubs. When we cut a spray of red 'Linda Campbell' roses from a proud specimen at the nursery entrance and bring it inside, he is clearly delighted. "Ah, this is a good rose."

It is a mad slasher transformed into a smiling queen mum. To create it, he took the difficult Japanese species Rosa rugosa and crossed it with a miniature rose, 'Anytime.' To test it, he sent it to a fellow rosarian, the late Linda Campbell, in Denver.

Moore found that it preserved rugosa's crimson blooms but got rid of the arching habit and ferocious thorns. It kept the scent, but took a plant that flowered once a year and turned it into a rose that flowers 10 months out of 12 in dry, warm climates. It distributed the flowers in an even spangle across strong, dense foliage. To L.A. rosarian Kim Rupert, it's got unique Western mettle. "It can take from 20 degrees to 110 in the summer with equanimity," he says. "It's Moore's masterpiece."

Or one of them. Few Americans know that in 1954, when we were absorbed with hybrid teas, Moore bred a thorn-less, repeat-blooming answer to the once-blooming 'Cecile Brunner.' " 'Renae' was before its time," Supinger says.

A recurring theme in Moore's work is teasing new varieties out of notoriously difficult parents. A deep conviction among breeders, Lohn says, is that Rosa bracteata, or the wild, thorny Macartney rose, is "a no man's land filled with nothing but dead-ends." Not by Moore. Growing in Lohn's nursery in Oregon is 'Precious Dream.'

"If ever there were a perfect shrub for the modern garden, this is it," Lohn says. "It's never overly large, tends to grow to a maximum of 3 by 3 feet. It's fully clothed with lovely, glossy foliage right down to soil line and presents a mass of apricot-coral flowers. Their fragrance is somewhat elusive, something like ripe peaches, and it tends to increase as the flowers age."

The latest Sequoia Nursery catalog carries another Moore breakthrough: 'Persian Autumn.' This is a second-generation descendant from a red-eyed desert flower once known as Rosa persica. However, it was so unusual among roses, so hard to crossbreed that it has been taken from the roses and given its own genus, Hulthemia persica. Using a hybrid developed in England, Moore bred the cross with great sprays of gold, orange and red flowers over a rounded bush. It has delicate single blossoms with unique red eyes, more like a poppy than a rose, and would be spectacular in a Mediterranean garden.

As we wind up the interview, Moore seems mildly guilty at having ranked one rose over another. He loves his striped roses, including striped rugosas. But then he's remembering the pleasure at developing the frilly, parsley-like sepals on his crested roses, particularly 'Crested Sweetheart,' with old-style lush blooms and strong perfume.

Or perhaps the most important thing is understanding the plant. Half a century before the current vogue for "own-root" roses, Moore was arguing against grafts and for own-root plants to spare gardeners graft failure, suckers, runaway root stock. Ahead of the pack, he stressed the importance of leaf structure and all-around handsomeness and health of plants.

He's a gardener, says Lohn. He loves what's in front of him. To Lohn, Moore has only one masterpiece, and it is not a rose, but his life. "Six years ago, I was visiting Sequoia Nursery, and he was saying, 'I have a 15-year work agenda ahead of me,' " says Lohn. "He was 92. How many people in their 90s have this burning desire to complete this kind of work? It's like you're talking to a 20-year-old.

"You think, 'Oh, my God, if everyone could be like this, what a wonderful world it would be.' "


Emily Green can be reached at emily.green@latimes.com. * (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX) A passion for the rose -- in its many forms

Miniature roses can be used to improve the shape of a standard garden shrub and to create flowers so small, they could slip through a wedding ring. In a 77-year breeding career, Ralph Moore has created climbers, ground covers, shrubs, striped roses, thornless crested roses — he even has crossed roses with a Persian desert flower. Of countless seedlings produced since his first in 1928, he has selected thousands to keep in breeding programs and released only 500 for sale to the public. At 98, he is still releasing new cultivars.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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