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Spectacular Swim Roses

by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian, Marin Rose Society

This is a 2006 AOM winner, Originally published in The Marin Rose in 2006

Herb Swim grew up on a small farm in north central Oklahoma where his family grew mostly fruit. In his book, Roses - from Dreams to Reality, he says, “The first roses in my memory were in the front yard of my parent’s home on a farm……the only ones I can clearly remember are the red and the yellow ones.” His love affair and lifelong interest in roses germinated there, and he would go on to create some of the world’s most popular roses.

At age thirteen his family moved to town, and he saw little of either fruit trees or roses for a good many years. High school was followed by college where he had trouble deciding what to study. He enrolled in the School of Agriculture at what is now Oklahoma State University and found the curriculum generally tedious except for the fascinating course on plant genetics. He was the only student to receive an A+ in the class. Next, he had to decide on a major and chose pomology – the study of pome fruits, where he learned that the “pome fruits” included not only apples, pears, and the stone fruits but also strawberries, blackberries, and Rosaceae – the rose family. After graduating from college in 1928, he took a job as a trainee under a golf course architect that brought him west to southern California. After a short stint at another golf course, he got a job at the Coolidge Rare Plant Gardens where he spent the next three years focused on roses. He then joined Armstrong Nurseries, started by John Armstrong in 1889. The business specialized in fruit trees and roses. Where Coolidge Gardens had grown a few thousand rose plants, Armstrong grew hundreds of thousands and had customers, both wholesale and retail, all over the globe. He was thrilled with the opportunity to work on breeding both fruit trees and roses, and began work under Dr. Walter Lammerts, the Director of Research at Armstrong.

Around this time, the plant patent act was approved by Congress, and it provided a new incentive to breeders. They could now recoup the cost of developing plants, so the hybridizing efforts at Armstrong increased. With his knowledge of genetics, Swim was a big help to Lammerts. One of the first notable roses that Lammerts developed was the stunning deep pink hybrid tea ‘Charlotte Armstrong’, a rose that would go on to be parent to many award-winning offspring. Swim succeeded Lammerts when he left in 1940, and eager to create something on his own, using ‘Charlotte Armstrong’ as a parent, he released ‘Princess Angeline’ in 1945. That was followed by four All America Rose Selections (AARS) winning roses – two in 1947, ‘Pinkie’ and ‘Nocturne’ and two in 1949, ‘Forty-niner’ and ‘Tallyho’. His next big success came with the introduction of the super fragrant yellow hybrid tea ‘Sutter’s Gold’ in 1950, another AARS winner, followed by ‘Helen Traubel’ in 1951, ‘Mojave’ in 1954 and ‘Circus’ in 1956.

After fifteen years as Research Director at Armstrong’s, Swim found himself more involved in administrative matters than in the plant breeding which he so loved. At the age of forty-eight, he left to form a partnership with Ollie Weeks, owner of Weeks’ Wholesale Rose Growers. They were the first to use greenhouses for both their hybridizing and growing of new seedlings - a novel approach that would ultimately be adopted by the major hybridizers. In 1956 they had their first real disaster - the lot of new seedlings had been inadvertently stored at freezing temperatures; only 2,000 of the 50,000 seedlings from that year’s breeding survived. The next year these same plants, now planted in the field, were exposed to extraordinary Santa Ana winds – and completely buried in sand. A few years later, Swim would take note of one of these seedlings in their trial garden – a hybrid tea growing nearly 10 feet tall and covered with more than fifty, long stemmed, dark red, super fragrant blooms.

During this time, Swim received more AARS awards for roses developed while he was at Armstrong and released after he had moved on. ‘Garden Party’, ‘Duet’, ‘Summer Sunshine’ and ‘Royal Highness’ were all big hits, as well as some he’d developed with David Armstrong – ‘Eiffel Tower’, ‘Joseph’s Coat’, the brilliantly colored climbing rose, ‘Sweet Afton’ and ‘Lemon Spice’.

From the lot of seedlings that had been through freezing and sandstorms came two splendid roses – that awesome 10-foot hybrid tea would be christened ‘Mr. Lincoln’ and the other ‘Oklahoma’. Both of these dark red, super fragrant beauties were crosses of ‘Chrysler Imperial’ and ‘Charles Mallerin’. Swim & Weeks won their first AARS awards in 1964 for ‘Mr. Lincoln’ and ‘Camelot’. Having great success with very fragrant roses, in 1968 Swim introduced another powerfully perfumed rose in ‘Angel Face’, a lovely mauve floribunda and in 1973, ‘Perfume Delight’, a brilliant pink hybrid tea.

An accumulation of health problems made Herb consider retirement in 1967. With agreement from Weeks, their partnership was dissolved, and Swim went back to work on a part time basis for Armstrong to help train new research staff. Swim found Arnold Ellis who was hired by Armstrong to fill the Research Directors position and also hired an assistant for Ellis, Jack Christensen. From this point, Swim collaborated in the development of roses with both Ellis and Christensen. Perhaps one of the most renowned of Swim’s roses, with Ellis, was the introduction of the extraordinary rose, ‘Double Delight’, (ABOVE: Photo by Rich Baer) the result of a cross of ‘Granada’ and ‘Garden Party’. This rose has an intense fragrance on a bloom that ranges from creamy white to strawberry red depending on sunlight – every bloom is different. He and Christensen introduced the winning ‘White Lightnin’ and the gorgeous apricot hybrid tea ‘Brandy’ (ABOVE RIGHT).

In addition to twenty-five AARS winners, four of his creations have been awarded the American Rose Society James Alexander Gamble Fragrance Medal – ‘Sutter’s Gold, ‘Double Delight’, ‘Angel Face’ (ABOVE) and ‘Mr. Lincoln’. ‘Double Delight’ is also a winner of the World Rose Hall of Fame in 1985. Swim says in his book, “Looking back on a career spanning almost forty-four years spent mostly with roses, it seems that I experienced not just the fulfillment of a dream, but of dream after dream.” How fortunate for us rose lover’s that we’re able to plant and enjoy his dreams! ABOVE: Sutter’s Gold.

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