They built a better rose map

Charlotte (David Austin)

Those of you who know more about the science of hybridization than I do are already aware that it takes up to a decade to breed a rose that has the desired combination of traits, whatever those may be. A glance at today’s New York Times tells us that laborious process may become significantly shorter and easier. Scientists in France have succeeded in mapping the rose genome more completely than ever before. This will make it easier to edit genes to reduce pesticide and water use and isolate the most desired traits in breeding.

Here’s the sentence I liked:

For centuries, generations of breeding in the quest for longer blooms and petals in shades of nearly every hue have dulled the sweetest smells that once perfumed gardens around the world.

Maybe now, breeders will be able to make roses that are really improved, not just scentless, dull shrubs whose only benefit is that they bloom all the time. (Yes, referring to Knockouts here.)

The Times story includes a link to the actual scientific article, but it wasn’t working when I clicked. Which is just as well, because I had trouble following the interpretation of it provided for newspaper readers. What I got was that the researchers created a rose with just a single copy of each of its genes, instead of the multiple copies modern hybrids have. They sequenced genomes from several types of roses, including Rosa chinensis ‘Old Blush’ as well as other ancestral species and newer hybrids. This data can be combined with what already exists to precisely match traits and genes. Possible goals? Well, for starters, they could maybe lessen the chances of rose rosette, which is threatening Knockouts as well as other types, and perhaps improve the scent and form of other modern hybrids. And, of course, there are many other rose problems that this work could address.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with old roses and roses from breeders who love old roses, like David Austin. I’m in it for the scent and the old-fashioned forms.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. How many decades now since we were promised a true blue rose from genetic engineering? Twenty years or so at least, and still, no blue rose. Instead, all my modern roses are losing the battle to RRD. Austin’s are also susceptible, Elizabeth, so I hope it doesn’t gain a foothold in your area. For me, I’m just thankful for Rugosa’s, most of which seem to be resistant at present.

  2. I have always felt that most of the point of a rose was the fragrance. A rose with no scent, no matter how attractive it is otherwise, is irrelevant. Just my opinion, anyway.

    • Well I can’t help but play the jester here today and write, “a rose by any other hue would smell as sweet.” Or would it?

      Personally I’m not sure I would want or appreciate a blue rose but oh, how I swoon
      for those pale lavender-colored bits of joys.
      Thanks as always, Elizabeth, for a good read. And you’re not alone in experiencing problems with attempting New York Times links.

      • Yes, I’m kind of “meh” with the blue rose. I can live without it. I finally found the study after googling; it’s available for those who can understand it.

        • Hi back,
          I love “meh,” it really gets the point across.
          Marie Viljoen has a super Spring in Brooklyn post now up on her 66 Square Feet blog. So grateful for your terrific writing and hers. Thanks for being out there for us, Elizabeth. Light rain here in Denver today — hooray!

    • Susan, I feel exactly the same way about the fragrance of roses.
      Soft, sweet, spicy, or sedutive, the scent makes any rose so much
      more than just another pretty face.

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