Thursday, April 23, 2015

Grey Pearl

This rose created a sensation when first introduced seventy years ago. Then, as now, people either found it irresistible or they loathed it. And, that was simply based upon its flower. Those who got to know it intimately, eventually learned to loathe the awful plant under that unusual flower. Jackson and Perkins imported the rose from the House of McGredy, in Ireland. There, due to its shy growing plant and grayish coloring, they had nicknamed it "The Mouse". Gene Boerner received the comment that it reminded the viewer of gray pearls. The Wisconsin farmer dressed up and visited a famous New York jeweler asking to see gray pearl shirt studs. He asked their price and was told they were $3,000. Remember, this was right about the end of World War 11. He conjectured if people were willing to pay $3,000 to wear gray pearl shirt studs, surely they would pony up the $2.00 per plant to grow it in their gardens? 

Roses of Yesterday and Today was this rose's champion for several decades. All through the 1950s and 1960s, they touted how glorious the color of the flowers was, then apologized they, once again, were unable to provide plants as they simply refused to grow. 

I had read the description in Modern Roses 8.."chocolate, olive, saffron and tan". I HAD to grow it! The Combined Rose List reported only ONE source for Grey Pearl in the world. Marissa Fishman at Greenmantle Nursery in Garberville, CA courageously attempted to offer it. I placed my order for two, as she had warned me the plant had a "death gene". It will slowly build, then throw a strong basal, topped with up to twelve of the most glorious flowers, then die to the root. She suggested the only way to maintain it in a garden or collection was to grow multiples, permitting one to flower some, while keeping all flower buds pinched off the second until it developed into the hoped-for plant size, then reverse the process. She required a year to produce my two plants, but they finally arrived and were very neurotically worried over. 

Of course, I had to allow them to flower! I had waited so long to finally see a "chocolate, olive, saffron and tan" rose, those buds simply MUST be allowed to open. In the high heat and brilliant sun of the San Fernando Valley, I saw little of those legendary tints. The flower was a dirty, pale lavender, generously washed over with dirty dish water. Yum! She was right. The only way to keep it going was to have more than one and not allow it to flower itself to death. 

While it wasn't a 'strong' plant, it was healthy. In all the years I had it, none of my plants every expressed any fungal issues. The only one with any diseases I'd encountered were the plants grown in the greenhouses at Sequoia Nursery. In the open, the foliage was always completely clean. Under plastic, they mildewed. 

During the late 80s and into the 90s, I actually had two "versions" of the rose. Liggett's Nursery sold the one The Huntington Library grew. It had (as this one does) yellow petal bases with a slight yellow wash over the petals. I tagged it as "Huntington-Liggett clone". The Greenmantle rose had white petal bases with no yellow tints to the flower. I tagged that one the "Greenmantle clone". The last plant of the Greenmantle Grey Pearl I knew of grew in Barney Gardner's garden in Los Banos, CA. I took it to him from my garden before I lost my last plant of it. There is no hope of it existing there as Barney passed in 2007. He owned an enormous lot with a huge old house, just a block off the main street. I'm certain it's been cleaned up and the rose would have required extra attention just to survive. 

I watched one of my two latest budded Grey Pearls decide it was time to go to the "Great Beyond". It began dying back and didn't slow down until the symptoms reached the bud union. The other plant languished. I determined that if it died, I would not attempt to replace it. The plant continued shrinking until it finally responded to something, and threw about a six inch cane. I had rooted stocks of both Pink Clouds and VI Fortuniana, and I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. I used the only buds available from the shrinking plant to produce one plant on Fortuniana and one on Pink Clouds. If only one survived, at least it wasn't gone yet. If both survived, I could possibly test which stock was better suited to the rose. Fortunately, both survived. The older, shrinking budded plant died. 

Grey Pearl is NOT a "great" plant. It has been offered own root, and it can be grown (for a little while) on its own roots, but not very well. Even budded, it requires propagating new plants regularly just to keep it alive. This photo on Help Me Find-Roses, I took at Sequoia Nursery years ago. The large plant in the rear of the photo is a budded Grey Pearl. The yellowish, smaller plant in the foreground is an own root. Both were propagated from the same plant, at the same time, in the same green house; grown in the same soil and received the same treatment. 

The Pink Clouds plant grew much more vigorously than the plant on Fortuniana. I watched both religiously to make sure nothing happened to them. While the one on Pink Clouds pushed new growth and a flower, the plant on Fortuniana simply sat there, doing nothing. This was thirteen months ago, back in mid June. After my recent move, the Pink Clouds plant defoliated and began pushing new growth from every bud, something Grey Pearl is notorious for doing just before it collapses and dies. The Fortuniana plant has developed more slowly into quite a nice specimen. It pushed one bud on a straight, strong stem, which I permitted to flower. I HAD to! 

Grey Pearl on Pink Clouds, budded June 16, 2014
 On VI Fortuniana, budded within minutes of the Pink Clouds plant. 

I obsessively shot over one hundred photos of the plant, bud and opening flower over the several weeks it required to finally open. Those tints are extremely difficult to capture! 

I tore up that one flower to pollinate it with a Banksiae X Laevigata cross. There were 59 petals and petaloids! Love it, or hate it, Grey Pearl really is something completely different!


  1. I had a nice Grey Pearl...also budded by Burling. It too was healthy for a season or two, then began to lose vigor and eventually died. I did think the bloom color exquisite...hints of lavender, tan, yellow, mauve...may have to try again one day. Maybe now I have a greenhouse I could keep it going.

  2. Kim really enjoyed the story. But I wish I hadn't seen the photos, shudder :-)
    I'm in the loathe it category.
    At least I hope if your cross takes, you'll have a healthier plant with a more interesting tinge and a healthier plant.
    Btw is it a scented rose?

  3. Unless winters are sub zero, it shouldn't take a greenhouse to keep it going, Sally. If you want to go to the effort, it probably would ONLY take rebudding it every couple of years. You probably will also want to use Fortuniana with your climate. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Bob, thank you. I can understand your reaction to the colors. It's pretty much my reaction to the "stale cantaloupe" of Margo Koster with her too yellow-green foliage. Looking at it with the idea of utlizing them to massage other colors, they become exciting tools. Imagine some of the sophisticated combinations possible using them in floral work. Would I want a whole bed of it? Well, probably, but I agree it would make quite a hole in the lawn, as if something had died instead of growing vigorously. I just remembered I probably should have added that Sam McGredy referred to it once on the old as "the rose of lavatorial color". Mel Hulse championed Grey Pearl for years and asked him about it. Mel laughed about that for a very long time!

  4. I'm sorry, Bob, I missed your question about scent. Yes, there is a slight scent to it, or was to this flower. It's difficult to perceive here now due to the heavy dampness, temperatures and wind. It seemed there were the components for more scent which should have expressed themselves had the conditions been better. It didn't seem as well scented as I have encountered previously in warmer situations, but I would not call it "well scented". Sort of ironic it has gone on to father very highly scented roses.

  5. I loved Grey pearl but alas she is too persnickety for me. I 've a small 1/2 acre and have to have all summer blooms, good scent and hardiness all in one. I love following your post and watching your experiments. Thanks for sharing.!!

  6. A "small 1/2 acre"? LOL! I'm on 1/5 acre and I understand what you mean about all summer blooms. I'm glad you're enjoying, Gwen, thank you!

  7. Thanks Kim for all the detailed information about its name and scent. Lots of chuckle moments. I'm glad that scent doesn't much the color!
    I now understand from a breeder point of view how exciting/creative traits could be coaxed from unconventional roses. I had somewhat this understanding that breeding with a "feeble" rose would carry in the case of Grey Pearl the "death gene" forward.

  8. Really enjoyed reading about you're experience with Grey Pearl. I read a short article on it's importance in creating other odd ball colored roses but you're take on the rose makes it much more vivid I can see why you grow it.

  9. Hi Bekah, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you. Knowing what made other roses and what the issues were/are, brings things into perspective.