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FRONTLINE: Retrospect


By Any Other Name
Introduced in 1945 by a local grower, the Peace rose’s myth keeps growing.

Like war, peace is an ideal consumer product. During war, peace is everyone’s desire. But, once attained, peace eventually becomes dull and laborious. Then we’re ready for an exciting new war. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Which is why, in 1945, Robert Pyle—a savvy grower and seller of roses who once publicized a fragrance tour for Helen Keller—chose “Peace” as the trade name of a blossom previously listed as #3-35-40. After a six-year world war, the president of Conard-Pyle Co. in West Grove knew that Peace would sell.

The rose remains a national favorite—in part because of the sentimental story Pyle spread about a grafted bud smuggled out of Europe as France collapsed in 1940 and introduced to America on April 29, 1945, the day Berlin fell. In fact, Berlin didn’t fall until a week later. Perhaps Pyle knew that rose lovers weren’t the type to remember that sort of thing.

Born into a Quaker family, Pyle came to the rose business after graduating from Swarthmore College. In 1898, he joined Conard & Jones as secretary, a position he held until 1910.

Conard & Jones was already well established. Founded before the Civil War as a tree nursery by Charles Dingee, the company originally sold a wide variety of shrubs, vines, bulbs, seeds and houseplants. Roses weren’t originally part of the inventory, but several accounts have Dingee adding them at his wife’s request about 1868. He also took on several partners, including Alfred F. Conard, under whose direction the company distributed the nation’s first mail-order rose catalog.

Roses in that era fell into two broad categories: wild roses—which provided the breeding material—and what gardeners now call old garden roses. Old garden roses are hybrids of wild roses developed in the 19th century and before. Typically, they are fragrant, cold hardy and disease resistant. Most bloom only once a year—normally in June—though there are exceptions.

In 1867, rose breeders crossed two old garden varieties—the tea rose (named for the resemblance of its fragrance to that of Chinese black tea) and the repeat-blooming hybrid perpetual—to produce the pale pink “La France.” This “hybrid tea rose” became the foundation for an entirely new class of climbers and shrubs now known collectively as modern garden roses.

In the 20th century, the popularity of hybrid teas eclipsed all others. Gardeners liked their season-long bloom. Flower arrangers liked their large blooms, diverse colors and long, stiff branches. (Older roses often flop on weak stems.) On the down side, hybrid teas don’t have much foliage and could be considered ugly in the landscape. Worse, the blossoms don’t have much fragrance, and the plants are more susceptible to disease.

None of that mattered. Perhaps hybrid teas appealed to the same Edwardian faith in progress that gave the world air travel, automobiles, bicycles and the Titanic.

Conard-Pyle (as Pyle renamed the company) followed the trend, and he became a leading advocate for hybrid teas. In his 1906 book, How To Grow Roses, which went through 20 editions over 40 years, Pyle declared there was “not a single purpose demanded of the rose which the hybrid tea cannot supply: roses for exhibition, brightening the garden, bedding, pillars, house decoration, buttonholes.”

The hybrid teas’ maintenance issues struck him as nothing much. “Sulphur for diseases and arsenate of lead for insects can conveniently be put on together, in a rather simple application,” he wrote. “The nicotine preparation (also for insects) is used separately. Thus, no matter what afflictions may threaten the roses, thorough and continuous dusting or spraying with sulfur and arsenate of lead or an approved equivalent will take care of most of them, and nicotine need be used only when necessary.”

In addition, the plants required regular fertilizer and water (though not too much). For Japanese beetles, the prevailing wisdom was to cut flowers each morning before they attacked.

Is it any wonder that hybrid teas’ popularity faded in the late 20th century? Today, pest- and disease-resistant old garden roses have returned to wide popularity.

Flower Salesman
Robert Pyle was a true businessman and marketer. In 1910, his company narrowed its focus exclusively to roses. It also became the first to “brand” what had previously been a generic product. Thenceforth, Conard-Pyle Roses became Star Roses by Conard-Pyle.

In the 1920s, as a grower and an officer of the national horticultural, rose and other societies, Pyle lobbied Congress for the right to patent plants. The Plant Patent Act of 1930 afforded protection to plants reproduced by “grafting, budding, cuttings, layering, division and the like, but not by seeds.” This allowed Conard-Pyle to collect royalties on its creations, which later brought it a great deal of money.

About 13,000 patents have been issued since 1931, but the number has surged in recent years. Currently, about 500 new plant patents are issued each year. Since 1975, more than 1,500 patents have been granted for new roses.

Pyle excelled at getting media attention. In 1939, he encouraged residential plantings of roses in West Grove and Avondale by offering two free climbing roses to any family that promised to care for them. The Kennett News & Advertiser reported that the company gave away about 200 plants, which were distributed through the schools.

Favored gimmicks included prominent people and current events. In 1939, for instance, Pyle discovered that presenting roses named “Miss Dorothy James” to the daughter of Pennsylvania Gov. Arthur James at the Philadelphia Flower Show got his company mentioned in all the papers. Quickly, he became more ambitious.

In 1941, when Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg arrived in the United States as a refugee after German armies rolled through her country, Pyle met her at a New York airport with a large bouquet of “Grand Duchess Charlotte” roses.

“Because the appeal of the rose is universal,” he told reporters, “it can also symbolize the sympathy we feel toward Her Highness and her people, now under the heel of the dictator.”

In 1946, he airmailed an arrangement of “the world’s tiniest roses” to Clementine (Mrs. Winston) Churchill, then an object of popular sympathy after her husband was defeated for re-election. In 1951, an Army nurse in Korea asked for two “Peace” roses to plant on the Pusan Perimeter, a small pocket into which Allied troops had been pushed by the invading Chinese. Pyle sent four plants. Later, he distributed to the press copies of the nurse’s description of regularly seeing as many as 20 Koreans “sitting around admiring the flowers.”

Hybrid tea #3-35-40 came to West Grove from French grower Francis Meilland, with whom Conard-Pyle had a testing and marketing alliance. To learn how new roses would perform in various climates, growers usually sent buds to trusted colleagues whose reports determined whether and where the plants would be offered commercially. Meilland, who had been working with #3-35-40 since 1935, thought it had promise and sent grafted buds to growers in Germany, Italy and Turkey. Shipping to the West was harder, but a U.S. consul volunteered to carry a small package on the last U.S.-bound aircraft from occupied France. A few days later, Pyle had his rose.

As the war raged, Conard-Pyle propagated additional copies of #3-35-40 and sent them to growers around the country. The response was positive, so Pyle set to work building the company’s inventory, scheduling a release for the spring of 1945. In Europe, Meilland named the rose “Madame Antoine Meilland” for his mother. The German grower called it “Gloria Dei” (praise be to God) and the Italian, “Gioia” (smile).

Ever the promoter, Pyle ran a contest among U.S. rosarians, who chose “Peace.” Understandably. After the Germans’ December 1944 offensive failed, it was clear to all (except maybe Hitler) that peace was coming. The official debut was scheduled for April 29 at the Pacific Rose Society’s spring show in Pasadena. When Pyle told the crowd that “this greatest new rose of our time” had been named for the world’s “greatest desire,” employees released caged doves.

In Berlin, a just-married Hitler was demanding that his mostly imaginary armies attack the eight Russian armies surrounding the city. Overhead, there was furious fighting around the Reichstag. The next day, Hitler’s body was carried outside by aides and incinerated in a crater as bombs continued to fall. The Germans’ Berlin garrison didn’t give up until May 2. The general surrender came May 8, celebrated as V-E Day.

So, how did Pyle get away with claiming—and generations of gardening writers with repeating—that the Peace rose appeared on the day Berlin fell? With chutzpah and marketing—and by never looking back. In June, when representatives of 45 nations gathered in San Francisco to sign the U.N. charter, Pyle paid hotel bellhops $1 per rose to put a Peace in each delegate’s hotel room with a note that read, “We hope the Peace rose will influence men’s thoughts for everlasting world peace”.

The Peace, of course, is a very nice rose. Its pale gold petals and other good (for a hybrid tea) characteristics won the American Rose Society’s gold medal in 1946. More than 100 million plants have since been sold.

But what it most had was a great name for the moment and a public that was ready to buy.

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at mark.dixon@att.net.

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