Breeders of Note:
the Dicksons

by Ed Cunningham

In addition to individuals who have made a mark by breeding roses, there are also what you might call "dynasties" which breed roses. One such dynasty is the Dickson family of Northern Ireland. Their website (http://www.dickson-roses.co.uk/) relates that "The company was founded in 1836 by Alexander I who came across from Perth, Scotland and set up business in Newtownards, Co. Down. His son, George I, with the assistance of his two eldest sons, Alexander II and George II, became fascinated with roses and started breeding around 1879. .......Patrick Dickson started his successful career in 1957, and introduced many successful varieties. ........(And now) Colin is the sixth generation to carry on the tradition."

Peter Beales, in his book 'Roses,` wrote that the French dominated rose breeding in the 1800's, due largely (in his opinion) to the "warm & sunny climate of southern France." Towards the end of the 1800's, the British became "fed up with the many French names in their catalogues," and began to build glass green houses wherein they could aggressively breed their own roses (and give them proper British names too, no doubt). Among the very first in this movement was "the firm of Alexander Dickson, of Newtownards, Northern Ireland." He led the Dickson nursery into breeding roses (S.Macaboy). Their countrymen, the McGredys of Portadown, began just a little bit later to breed roses. In 1892, the Dickson firm soon won "the first ever gold medal to be given to a hybrid tea." ( "Mrs. W. J. Grant" ) They had many successes after that, and won many awards with their hybrid teas. Unfortunately, they had a fire in their office in 1921, and all their breeding records prior to 1921 were lost (S.Macaboy).

HTs had been their primary endeavor until the end of WWII, when they began to also breed floribundas. Beales reports that, by 1985, 17 of the 135 FL's listed by the Royal Rose Society were bred by just Patrick Dickson alone ! (Almost 15% by 1 breeder, not bad).

Dickson again expanded their interests in the 1970's, doing "pioneer work in patio roses,"according to "Botanica's Rose Book."

Among their better known roses are Elina, Precious Platinum, Grandpa Dickson (aka 'Irish Gold`), Shot Silk, Redgold, Red Devil, Tequila Sunrise, Quaker Star, Laughter Lines, Gypsy Dancer, Fragrant Dream, Red Planet, Marchioness of Londonderry, Lady Ursula, Harvest Fayre, Anisley Dickson (aka Dicky ARS 8.7). A number of their roses have been utilized by many breeders in their programs. Notably, their 'Nana Mouskouri' is a parent of 'Elina;' and 'Kitchener of Khartoum,' bred in 1917, produced 'Dainty Bess,' 'Charles Mallerin,' and 'Chianti' (utilized by David Austin) within 3 generations. At the helpmefind.com website, just the first 3 generations of Kitchener of Khartoum's offspring fill 10 computer screens !

Elsewhere in "Roses," Beales tells us that one of the "oldest of their varieties still available today is the beautiful single, 'Irish Elegance,` raised in 1905." I had occasionally seen photos of this rose; but I never really liked it. Then when the R.I.R.S. made our trip to the Montreal rose garden, I happened across a bed of these roses, and was struck by how beautiful they are, with their peach-gold & salmon petals. The photos I had seen had never done it justice. Now, I know why ARS rates it at 9.1, and I am happily growing this HT rose, and its single cousin, also by Dickson, 'Irish Fireflame.' Interestingly, it is "believed" that the parentage of Irish Elegance is a species rose (R.Hibernica) by "a hybrid tea."

S.Macaboy, in his "The Ultimate Rose Book," suggests making a single HT rose "period bed" of Irish Elegance (1905), Irish Fireflame (1914), Dainty Bess (1925), and Mrs. Oakley Fisher (1921).

To get a better feel for a breeder as a person, it can be helpful to observe how the breeder names their roses. The Dicksons, for example, have used the names of local places in Ireland, and other Irish motif names ("Celtic Honey," "Irish Gold"). They have also used the names of many people, including nobility. They have utilized "whimsical" and "heuristic " names such as "Blushing Bride, Space Invader, Pretty in Pink, and Olympic Triumph." And, as many other breeders, they have also "sold" the name of a new rose to a company that wants to promote itself. For example, a producer of disposable baby diapers in Europe paid to have Dickson name a rose for them in the European market; it would be like naming an American rose for "Pampers." Thus, the Dickson rose we know as 'Elina,' Europe knows as 'Peudouce' (I suspect the literal translation is "Little Sweets;" can you say "euphemism?" Bill Cosby [or was it Robin Williams ?] was closer to the truth in one of his comedic monologues when he described the contents of a diaper as a combination of "toxic waste and velcro"). And finally, the Dicksons have also named roses after family members, as well as other people, and things, which are important to them. One example is their rose with the unlikely name 'Red Devil,' aka 'Coeur d'Amour.' It "has been described as the most perfectly shaped big, large flowered rose that has ever appeared on the show bench" according to the Botanica Rose book. The Helpmefind site quotes Patrick Dickson's own book, "Red Hybrid Teas," from back in 1980, "Red Devil ... 75 petals which refuse to open in damp weather... Nevertheless, it is the principle exhibition variety in the United Kingdom. " Most sources agree that it is a lighter red, vigorous, healthy, a good exhibition rose, and has some fragrance. Now, 'Coeur d'Amour' is a name you might expect for a rose, but why 'Red Devil?' A little research revealed that Patrick Dickson named it after the logo of his R.A.F. squadron!

Although Dickson's is the oldest rose breeding firm in Britain, they have not been the most prolific. Neither have they cornered the market on the most famous roses that have been produced. Nonetheless, they seem to be good people who have contributed steadily over generations. In just the 17 years from 1983 to 2000 alone, they won 7 "Rose of the Year" awards, according to their website. What is it they say, "Do what you love, & the money will follow ?"

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Date last edited: 01/21/10
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