Johnny Becnel ~ the Man, the Rose, the Legacy
by Suzanne Horn, Master Rosarian, Pacific Rose Society
This article was first published in the Pacific Rose and is a 2016 Award of Merit winner
'Johnny Becnel' bloom, photo by Peter Alonso
How long does it take for a great rosarian to become a legend? It helps when you have a stunning rose to remember him by. That is the case with Johnny Becnel, a truly great rosarian, and the beautiful rose that was named for him. This is the story of how a lovely rose came to carry his name and how his influence changed the rose world. Let's begin with the story of the man and then the rose.
Johnny Jacob Becnel, Sr. was born on December 16, 1945 and lived most of his life in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. For years he grew produce and sold it at Johnny Becnel's Farm Fresh Produce, a company that his wife Madeline owns to this day. At some point, Johnny fell in love with roses ~ not the garden variety everyday roses you find at Home Depot, but exhibition hybrid tea roses. They became his passion and he began to grow and exhibit them. He put his passion into his business and shortly thereafter opened Johnny Becnel Show Roses. He was assisted in his greenhouse endeavors by an employee named Harold, who was like a son to him; and they ran the nursery operation together. It grew to be ranked #2 of the Best Rose Nurseries of All Time. (Don't ask me what was #1 - I have no idea.) ABOVE: 'Johnny Becnel' Floribunda Queen of Show - shown by Bob & Kitty Belendez - photo by Kitty Belendez
Johnny's nursery specialized in hybrid tea and miniature roses grown on fortuniana rootstock, which he introduced to exhibitors around the country. In fact, he was one of the pioneers at promoting of fortuniana budded exhibition roses. Roses grown on fortuniana were bigger and better than those grown on other rootstocks, and his roses took exhibitors to the "top of the table" at rose shows consistently. During those years he became close friends with Eddie Edwards, a great rose breeder of hybrid teas and an avid exhibitor. Based on that friendship, Johnny was able to introduce some magnificent hybrid tea roses hybridized by Eddie Edwards to the rose world; and most of the exhibitors I know, myself included, have grown many of them.
I got to know Johnny in 2002 when I started growing roses on fortuniana, and Johnny was only a phone call away anytime I needed any advice or guidance (except when I caught him on the golf course... then all bets were off). Since I was in California and he was in Louisiana, all of our contact was on the phone that first year or so. However, he would spend a lot of time on the phone with me, teaching me and guiding me; and I was certainly not the only person he taught in this manner. ABOVE: Johnny Becnel in garden pruning, photo by Ray Guillebeau
Johnny had his own way of doing things and was not the common rose “expert.” As a matter of fact, he often questioned the experts. For thirty years Johnny grew exhibition roses with astonishing success by not listening to experts but to the roses and by following their lead. See the attached photos of Johnny in his rose garden, which showcase the amazing success he achieved.
Johnny started teaching his own methods when speaking for rose societies in various states plus at District and National conventions around the country. I remember visiting his garden and being surprised that he grew his hybrid teas in raised beds that were two feet on center. (See the photo of Johnny pruning with the raised beds in the background.) I would have thought that was too close, but it worked for him. ABOVE: 'Johnny Becnel' spray, photographer unknown
One of the things he taught people was a "once a year feeding program". Geoff and Debbie Coolidge of Cool Roses have had very good luck with it as have many other top rosarians. They mix his formula directly into the planting hole soil when they plant new roses. Here is the feeding program Johnny created:
The Johnny Becnel Once a Year Fertilizer Program
Move mulch and add the following:
2 cups of Fish Meal
1 cup of 8-9 month Time Release Fertilizer
2 Tbsp. of Blood Meal
1/2 Cup of Alfalfa Meal
1/2 cup of Epsom Salts (add this 3 times a year)
1/2 cup of Dolomite Lime
1/2 cup of Milorganite
1/2 cup of Gypsum Pellets
1 cup of Ashes from his fireplace
I have modified this feeding program for my own purposes, since I grow all my roses in large containers and feed them more than once a year. However, I do incorporate the Fish Meal, the Milorganite and the Organic fertilizer layered in the pots whenever I am planting new roses; and it has worked very successfully for me over the years. LEFT: Johnny Becnel Garden Tour, photo by Ray Guillebeau
After many lengthy telephone conversations in 2002 and 2003, I finally met Johnny Becnel face to face at the 2003 National Convention in New Orleans. His amazing rose garden was on the Garden Tour and I was able to spend time there along with so many other rosarians from around the country. See the photo from the tour attached to this story. I also had the opportunity to visit him again after the Convention, to spend time with him in his greenhouses and get some lessons in budding roses. He was amazing and could bud a rose in about a minute! I will always treasure the time I was able to spend with him. How was I to know that only about a year later, he would be gone.
Sadly, in early 2004, Johnny was diagnosed with terminal cancer. When he only had a couple of weeks to live, Eddie Edwards came to visit him to show him a number of new roses he was going to introduce. He wanted to name a rose after Johnny and let him select the rose that was to bear his name. Johnny chose a beautiful orange blend hybrid tea, and so it came to be named "Johnny Becnel". Shortly thereafter, on May 1, 2004 at 58 years of age, Johnny lost his battle with cancer and passed away. It was a great loss to the rose world, but a beautiful rose was left behind to bear his name.
Johnny's close friend Calvin Boutte from Martinville, Louisiana, kept Johnny Becnel Show Roses going for a year or so after Johnny's passing. Calvin was a close friend who Johnny had mentored in growing and showing roses. He had started growing roses to keep himself busy and "out of trouble", and he visited Johnny’s garden after meeting him at a rose show in New Orleans. He made a decision to learn all he could from “that guy”, because it was obvious that his mentor was very gifted at growing roses. Throughout that time of mentoring, Johnny and Calvin became the best of friends.
To quote Calvin, “I did learn a lot from him, but not nearly all that he knew, because this man was gifted from GOD and might not have known it, but I do.” I believe there are a lot of rosarians out there who would agree with that statement. Unfortunately, when the continual trips back and forth from Martinville to Belle Chasse became too much for Calvin, Johnny's family closed the show rose business to concentrate on their produce business. However, by that time a number of other nurseries had picked up the gauntlet and had begun to sell roses budded on fortuniana. Exhibitors can now find many top exhibition varieties at K&M Roses in Mississippi and Cool Roses in Florida.
Calvin recently wrote to me, remembering his friend. He shared, "Johnny was a very gifted man who had no education in growing plants. Everything he did with all plants that he grew was a natural gift from God. He was my best friend. I learned everything I know about roses from Johnny. I learned a lot about growing vegetables from him also. He was a great friend and is missed."
As for Johnny's legacy rose, "Johnny Becnel" has become a successful show rose, although not quite the way he thought it would. As noted above, it was originally registered by Eddie Edwards in 2004 as a hybrid tea, since Johnny loved hybrid tea roses. Johnny Becnel Show Roses had the honor of introducing it. However, in many parts of the country such as my area of Southern California, the blooms were too small to be competitive.
I remember giving my plant of Johnny Becnel to exhibitor extraordinaire Peter Alonso, who now resides in Northern California. The cooler weather increased the bloom size on the rose, and Peter won the first Queen of Show with it! However, because bloom size was a serious issue, Eddie Edwards ultimately reclassified the rose as a floribunda in September of 2007; and that is where it has enjoyed a great amount of success at the rose shows. Of course, that meant I had to go right out and buy it again! ABOVE: Johnny Becnel - 3 blooms, photo courtesy of Houzz.com
Johnny Becnel is an exquisite orange blend (OB) floribunda that was created from a cross of two sensational hybrid tea roses, Gemini and Crystalline. It presents the gorgeous, high-centered exhibition bloom form that exhibitors love with between 26 and 40 petals. Those blooms are on average about four inches in diameter although they can be larger in cool climates. They are long lasting and are borne either in clusters or one to a stem. They also repeat well throughout the growing season. An extra bonus is that the blooms have a wonderful, strong fragrance!
Of note, although this rose is classified as an orange blend, in certain weather conditions, it presents more of a pink and white than orange and white blend. See the attached photos for clarification. Those show-stopping blossoms cloaked in lush, dark green, semi-glossy foliage, presenting a very striking appearance in the garden and on the show table. The plants present a medium, upright growth habit which reaches anywhere from five to six feet tall and two to three feet wide. ABOVE: Johnny Becnel Greenhouse with longtime assistant Harold in 2005, photo by Ray Guillebeau
At the rose show, Johnny Becnel is often seen in the One Floribunda Bloom category, although it has produced some beautiful sprays to compete for Queen of Floribundas. See the attached photo taken by exhibitor extraordinaire Kitty Belendez of her Floribunda Queen of Show. Nobody grows Johnny Becnel better than Kitty. Attached are also some lovely examples of individual blooms of this rose showing the color variations it presents from orange & white to pink & white or coral & white. All of the color variations are lovely!
In summary, this beautiful rose carries on the legacy of a groundbreaking, gifted rosarian who gave so much to the rose world in his all too short time on this planet. The rose is not widely commercially available, but it can often be obtained on fortuniana rootstock from K&M Roses in Mississippi. You may have to search a little for it, but this is a rose that it is worth the extra effort. Whether you are a home gardener seeking a beautiful, fragrant rose for the garden or an exhibitor looking for a glamorous addition to your trophy winning collection, the Johnny Becnel rose is an excellent choice. The rose world will forever mourn the untimely loss of Johnny Becnel, but we will always have a beautiful rose to remember him by. ABOVE: 'Johnny Becnel' spray, photo by Cliff Orent