It took the skills and common sense of one man to revolutionise the rose world. This man took chance and luck out of rose breeding and replaced them with science and integrity. From the time that Henry Bennett started to apply his knowledge as a cattle breeder to the breeding of roses there has been no concern about the parentage of a rose. He knew exactly who the two parents of his new roses were; there was no element of doubt. Nothing was left to chance; rose breeding became a scientific process.
During the 1850s and 60s Henry Bennett was a Wiltshire tenant farmer rearing cattle and growing wheat. Although he was successful he could see that as time passed it was becoming more difficult for a farmer to make a good living. Rather than bemoan his situation he realised that he must diversify. He was a man with a large family who relied on him as the breadwinner.
Henry Bennett – a farmer who became a rose breeder. (photo: public domain)
He could see that the nation was becoming besotted with roses. Since the introduction of roses from China in the late 18th century a greater range of roses could be grown; more colours, continual flowering, different habit of growth. Roses were becoming increasingly popular in gardens, for cutting and for showing. He began to realise that perhaps he could somehow link into this growing industry.
He started by growing a few roses, reading what he could and travelling to France as he could see that the roses he grew largely had French names so this is where he knew the knowledge must be. He visited several French growers but learned little. When they wanted to hybridise a rose all was left to chance – the wind and the rain and many roses actually self pollinated rather than cross pollinated. The seeds of these roses provided a lottery of resulting seedlings.
Disappointed but inspired by what he had discovered in France he set about ‘engineering’ a rose. He thought about the type of rose he wished to create, form, colour etc. and then decided on which two parents might make this possible. He then stripped the stamens and pollen from the rose he wished to provide the seed (the female) so that she could not fertilise herself and then transferred pollen physically and intentionally from the other rose he designated as the male. He then only had to wait until the female rose produced her seeds, hoping that one or two would produce a bloom similar to that he had chosen to engineer.
Sadly, he had little success as the majority of his seeds did not ripen and any seedlings were poor. He revisited France as he heard stories of success but found little evidence of scientific rose breeding. He became popular with the rose breeders of Lyon and the South to the point that they named roses after him. He must have been quite a personality. Although he returned with little factual evidence for the way forward he did return with some ideas.
Henry Bennett thought that one major problem may be the climate so he set up a heated greenhouse. The roses he chose as female parents were planted in pots and given heat. With the Tea-Scented roses flowering almost continually as a result of this luxurious treatment he was able to fertilise them over a longer period and they were able to carry many more seed pods. His problem of producing ripe seed was resolved. The glass house produced other benefits such as no wind or rain and few insects.
In 1879 he was able to introduce ten roses for all of which he was able to guarantee parentage and the fact that each was a cross between a Hybrid Perpetual and a Tea Rose. He called them ‘Pedigree Hybrids of the Tea Rose’ with the word pedigree referring to the reliability of their parentage. They were not heralded as the most fabulous of roses but they were recognised as being bred scientifically and other rosarians hurried to follow his methods. The French shortened the name to Hybrid de Thé and the Hybrid Tea rose was born.
A typical modern Hybrid Tea rose (Alex). Other classes of rose are now bred by the method used by Henry Bennett.