My kingdom is a small one, but I am king there.
You would never know that Ralph Moore was internationally famous in the rose world by visiting his modest nursery or watching him work—even at the age of ninety-seven. Modesty has always been his hallmark, but his works have had a profound influence on the way roses are hybridized.
He was born and has spent his entire life in Visalia, California. The town was founded in 1852, with many of its inhabitants at that time siding with the South in the Civil War. I first visited the town soon after World War II; it had a population of around 8,000 persons then, many of them involved in agriculture, which is still the main industry in that part of the San Joaquin Valley. Moore’s father raised and sold tomatoes, potatoes, and melons.
It is a far different town—rather city—today, with a population at 100,000. Moore’s Sequoia Nursery is located in what was once considered rural. Today, thousands of speeding cars and trucks rush past his front door on Highway 198; urban sprawl completely surrounds his nursery and home.
Moore’s grandfather taught him to take cuttings of the roses in his small garden. At the Huntington Botanic Garden, twelve years ago, I watched the grandson give a demonstration of what he had learned; he has finely tuned the skills that his grandfather gave him. (Three years ago, the Huntington honored him as one of the great rosarians of this age.) His higher education was at the local junior college and then at the University of California at Davis, the school that will take over the property after his death.
Walking with him through his six-acre nursery area, I watched as he took out his small pen knife to cut blooms from roses that he wanted to discuss. A handsome man, he walks slowly now but erect. His hands reminded me of Willa Cather’s description of Anton Rosicky (in the short story, “Neighbor Rosicky”), a Czech farmer who had a broad, flexible brown hand . . . a kind of gypsy hand, it was so alive and quick and light . . . like quick-silver, muscular . . . a warm brown human hand with some cleverness in it, a great deal of generosity.
A Beginning and a Discovery
Over the years he hybridized and grew roses, although during the Depression years of the 1930s, he found other work to support his family. Moore grew fond of the smaller roses, such as ‘Mlle Cecile Brunner’, a most popular “buttonhole rose,” and ‘Rouletti’, the tiniest rose in the world at the time. One of his first attempts at hybridizing these smaller roses produced ‘Sierra Snowstorm’ (1937), which had small white blossoms on a large shrub. He discovered that, by crossing small roses with large climbers, he was getting offspring that were miniatures.
In 1957, he patented his first miniature rose, ‘Centennial Miss’, a deep wine-red flower tinged with white; it has no prickles, is ten inches tall, and is still in commerce today. Since then, he has produced a series of successful miniatures every year. The world has beaten a path to his door as he made miniatures popular, though many in the rose business laughed at the prospect for their success.
“I’ve enjoyed playing around. I rejected the routine way of hybridizing because it was not producing anything new, and because it was boring.” He grinned broadly, admitting he was happy that he took his own path. “We see the same type of rose—mostly hybrid teas—produced year after year. That is not my world.”
He has worked with Rosa bracteata, an uncommon wild rose that, he says, has been quite difficult but has paid off with some interesting roses. “Breeders should move in that direction as the wild ones can produce some new strains.” Jack Harkness, the late English breeder who acknowledges Moore’s genius, said, “He soon discarded the idea that both parents had to be as short as possible, because he found out that only one parent needed to be short. This gave him the freedom of the genus.” Moore predicts that miniatures are the key to the future of rose breeding.
By using pollen from miniatures on large-flowered roses that were fertile, he increased the number of miniatures that he could, in turn, cross repeatedly. His production increased and his fame spread, though he says it was difficult at first to find a market for his miniature roses.
An Alternative to Grafting
Another of his landmark practices was using own-root stock for propagating rather than budding or grafting. His greenhouses are crowded with tables laden with cuttings waiting to sprout, or already rooted and ready to pot up and sell. A greater number of plants can be produced for sale by bud grafting, but recent history has shown that such grafted plants often are more disease-prone and more likely to fail in the garden. Moore never has used open fields to produce his roses for experimentation or for sale.
Yet another outstanding contribution that Moore has made is the introduction of moss roses, in both miniature and shrub forms. It took him twenty-four years to achieve this, producing ‘Goldmoss’, a reblooming floribunda, in 1972. His biggest success was ‘Crested Sweetheart’ (1988), a climbing rose with pronounced moss on each bud. The moss rose was an aberration, a mutation of Rosa x centifolia that was first noted in the eighteenth century. The sepals and flower stems are covered with short, branched, scented glands—the “moss;” if they are rubbed with the fingers, a strong balsam-like aroma is released. The perfume and the appearance are popular with many rosarians. Moore has published articles about his work with this group of roses.
He bemoans much of the hybridizing today, because the cash register dictates what new plants will be introduced. If the bottom line had been his only concern, he would never have achieved his ultimate success and fame. He humorously calls the big-flowered roses of today “cabbages on a stick.”
When I visited the famous rose garden at Cavriglia, in Italy, I found a climbing miniature of Moore’s that had been grown as a weeping standard. The flowers of ‘Red Cascade’ are blood red and double, and the canes are armed with horrible prickles. Typical of so many of his roses, this selection can be used as a ground cover or in containers and is tolerant of shade.
In the Sacramento Pioneer Cemetery, where an extensive collection of old roses is tended by volunteers, there are some “recent” additions, such as Moore’s ‘Renae’, a climbing polyantha from 1954 that shows he produced more than miniature roses. This popular pink, semi-double rose flowers repeatedly throughout the season, has no prickles, and is fragrant.
Ground Cover Roses
Moore was among those breeding the ground cover roses that have become popular in the past fifteen years. ‘Ralph’s Creeper’ (1987) grows five feet wide by twenty inches high; the red blossoms sport yellow eyes and flower from spring until the first frost. It is particularly fine when draping over walls. ‘Playboy’, a hugely popular floribunda, is one of the parents.
Moore has always been fascinated with striped roses. He tried for a long time to breed them, working with all kinds of parent stock. He finally succeeded with a cross between ‘Little Chief’ (1971) and what he called “No. 14 Stripe;” this produced ‘Stars and Stripes’, just in time for the bicentennial in 1976. That rose is a grandparent of the currently popular ‘4th of July’ by Tom Carruth. (See Pacific Horticulture July 2003.) A striped miniature, ‘Secret Recipe’, was introduced in 1994; it is also moderately mossed.
Two recent successes include an as-yet unnamed yellow rugosa rose that has no prickles (Rosa rugosa and her hybrids are notorious for their spines) and the first striped rugosa, also yet to be named.
Why do I keep on with my rose breeding? What better reason than to create beauty to share with others. For love of a rose, I want to keep on as long as I hear that other drummer—so long as I can dream dreams—so long as my new roses can speak of the glory of God.
On May 29, 2004, the Visalia Parks and Recreation Foundation dedicated the Ralph Moore Rose Garden, filled with a collection of his miniature and shrub roses. The garden is open daily for those who wish to see the work of the “Father of the Miniature Rose.”
This is the fourth in a series of portraits of California rose breeders. William Grant has written about Francis E Lester, Father Georg Schoener, and Tom Carruth in previous issues of Pacific Horticulture.