The Mystery of Alisha - a Sport or Not?
Suzanne M. Horn, Master Rosarian with the Pacific Rose Society
This is a 2016 Award of Merit article.
'Alisha' is an exquisite little miniature rose that is simultaneously unique and extremely rare in the rose world. Gardeners and exhibitors who have fallen in love with the hot pink Marriotta miniature rose frequently seek out opportunities to obtain 'Alisha'. Conventional wisdom dictates that 'Alisha' is a sport of the wildly popular Marriotta. However, some alternative information was presented at its registration, creating a bit of a mystery as to its origins.
(ABOVE: 'Alisha' by Peter Alonso)
For those who are not familiar with the parent rose, Marriotta was bred by legendary hybridizer Sam McGredy IV in New Zealand, back in 1981 and is a very popular miniature for exhibition to this day. Mr. McGredy wanted to create roses that were unique to the marketplace before they were popular, and he certainly succeeded with Marriotta. 'Alisha' is also an outstanding miniature rose that presents all of the wonderful qualities of its parent plant.
Before confronting the mystery of 'Alisha', let's take a look at the agreed upon information about it. 'Alisha' presents superb little decorative light pink blooms that are quite unusual, occasionally presenting with white edging. This is a true miniature rose in bloom size, foliage and growth habit. Its bloom form is unique, looking for all the world like a tiny chrysanthemum. This rose averages anywhere from 26 to 40 eye-catching petals per bloom and has an average diameter of 1.5 inches. (RIGHT: 'Alisha' spray by Bob Martin)
The plant is short and rounded in stature, with a medium bushy growth habit, reaching a height of up to 20 inches. Its form is attractive and graceful, and it is moderately vigorous, making beautiful little sprays of extremely long-lasting blooms. It can also be disbudded to achieve one bloom per stem, should that be your preference. In addition, the foliage on 'Alisha' is perfectly complimentary to the blooms, being petite, medium green, and semi-glossy. It is also nearly thornless, and it flowers prolifically all season long. As a matter of fact, except for directly after pruning, Alisha never seems to be out of bloom. You couldn’t ask for a better-behaved rose.
Another outstanding plus for this miniature rose is that it is exceptionally disease resistant. I’ve never seen a speck of powdery mildew on it, nor for that matter any other disease. It also appears to be extremely resistant to insects and spider mites. While all else around it is coming down with the plague, 'Alisha' stays clean, healthy and beautiful in the midst of it all.
'Alisha' is not only a sweet spot of color in the garden, like its parent plant it has also become a favorite of exhibitors. This is in spite of the fact that it does not have the much sought-after hybrid tea form. Exhibitors have found that 'Alisha' works well in a wide variety of exhibition classes such as decorative miniature bloom, miniature spray, three miniature sprays, miniature English box or miniature rose in a bowl. Also see the striking photo (LEFT) of an extraordinary entry of multiple roses in a bowl created by top exhibitor Bob Martin utilizing both Marriotta and 'Alisha' (kudos to photographer/exhibitor Dona Martin).
Now I will address the mystery about 'Alisha', which most rosarians believe to be a sport but which was registered as Marriotta x Seedling in 1995 as SPOday. For those readers who are not familiar with "sports", here is a "Cliff's Notes" summary. Roses sometimes produce a flower that is different than the normal color or form of the parent plant. Although there are several reasons for this, the most common cause is a genetic mutation, which then changes the growth habit, flower color or flower form of the parent plant.
When a new shoot displays different characteristics to the parent plant, those new shoots are called sports. If you see something desirable in the mutation, it is suggested that you tie a ribbon around that stem to see if it continues to grow in the mutated way or whether the original apparent mutation was just weather related. If the mutation continues to repeat itself in a desirable way, you can try to root the cutting from that shoot to see if it continues to grow in its new form. If it continues to repeat itself, the sport can be cultivated to make a new variation of the plant.
Many rose sports are stable, but others are not, often reverting back to the characteristics of the parent plant. In speaking some years ago with hybridizer Dennis Bridges at his nursery in North Carolina called Bridges Roses (now closed), he opined that he didn't consider a rose to be a stable sport until it had repeated for eight generations.
That being said, there are good sports and bad sports. Not every genetic mutation produces a desirable rose. In speaking with successful Bakersfield hybridizer Jim Sproul, he noted that most sports take on all of the bad qualities of the parent plant and few of the good. More often than not, most sports are not as good or healthy as the parent plant. There a few sports that are actually better (Dona Martin, sport of Randy Scott is an excellent example), but those sports are rare. 'Alisha' is not better than its parent plant, Marriotta, but it is easily as good.
For clarification on the mystery of the origins of 'Alisha', I sought out advice from ARS Vice President Bob Martin and the generally acknowledged "King of Sports", Peter Alonso. Peter has discovered more sports than anyone I know, and Bob says that it is because he is simply more observant than other people. Peter began his response by giving a big "thank you" to the great friend of the rose world, the late James Delahanty, who made it possible for rosarians to grow the miniature roses 'Alisha' and Lavender Spoon.
Peter notes, "Without him, we would not have the pleasure of growing both fine mini roses. Somehow James got them from Ray Spooner before or after Ray passed away. Ray's passing resulted in the closure of Oregon Miniature Rose Nursery." Peter refers here to Raymond A. Spooner of Beaverton, Oregon, who owned Oregon Miniature Roses until his death at age 66 on September 23, 1997. (LEFT: 'Alisha' spray by Bob Martin)
Peter likes 'Alisha' very much. He advised that he obtained cuttings from James Delahanty and then shared cuttings with Vernon Rickard at Almost Heaven Roses in North Carolina. Vernon made the rose commercially available until he passed away in July of 2010 and the nursery subsequently closed.
As for the parentage of 'Alisha', Peter opined, "I believe it is really a sport of Marriotta and not Marriotta x Seedling as registered. I recall my 'Alisha' had flowers reverting back to dark pink color. Back then when you registered a rose it was confusing where to note sports. I think the person (his son I think) who registered it for Ray just listed it as Marriotta x Seedling to be done with registering it."
Eager for another highly educated opinion, I followed up with the very knowledgeable Bob Martin, who advised, "I am reasonably certain that Peter is right and that 'Alisha' is a sport of Marriotta. That is how I listed it when it was in Horizon Roses, and that is how I have described it over the years. I am aware that the Modern Roses 12 has it listed as Marriotta x seedling. That is because it was registered that way. Peter’s explanation of how that came to be is probable." Bob's views are based on the following, which he shared with me:
I grow both roses and have for many years. The only difference between them is the color.
A cross of Marriotta x seedling should show some genetic influence from the seedling. Even if this were a self seedling, i.e. Marriotta x Marriotta, it is unlikely that the result would be an exact replica but for the color.
Having personally registered roses at the ICAR website, I can tell you that in 1995 it was far from clear how one registers a sport. The form then was pretty much as it is now...Under Parentage you are to list the Seed (female) parent, the Pollen (male) parent and “Sport (mutation of).” It really does not tell you that you only need fill in the latter box for a sport, and someone unfamiliar with the process could easily fill in Marriotta in one and seedling in the other, and leave the Sport box blank. Note also the following from the instructions at the time:
Parentage: Specify, if known. If the parents are unknown seedlings, please specify the cross from which they were derived, if known; otherwise, indicate the class and color if each parent, where possible.
Sports (Mutations): Information must be provided as to the variety of origin and as to how this sport (mutation) is distinct from its variety of origin or other sports/mutations of the same variety of origin which are known to the applicant. A photo print, slide/transparency, or digital image must be provided.
Bob surmised that if the son entered the registration and had no previous experience with the process, it was quite plausible that he would have messed up the documentation; and the result would be Marriotta x Seedling. Apparently, Ray Spooner nearly always disclosed the breeding of his registered roses, with only a few referenced to a seedling being one of the parents. As a breeder, he kept good records of his crosses. The roses registered after he took ill and subsequent to his death disclose no breeding at all, suggesting by the date and the description that someone else was submitting the information. Lastly, Ray Spooner had no registered sports. Bob notes that this suggests neither Ray nor anyone else associated with him knew how to register a sport. In summation, Bob observes that breeding roses always brings surprises, and perhaps Ray Spooner did breed the rose Marriotta x Seedling. But he doesn't think so. He concludes by saying "Peter is the King of Sports and if he says it's a sport, then you can take that to the bank." (ABOVE: 'Alisha' by Peter Alonso)
Based on all the information and documentation I have collected, I have surmised that 'Alisha' was actually "discovered", not "hybridized" by Ray Spooner; and that the registration by his son was in error. Oregon Miniature Roses nursery offered Marriotta for sale, and that is where Ray more than likely discovered the charming light pink sport. 'Alisha' is an exact replica of Marriotta except that it is light pink with white edging instead of fuchsia pink. I conclude that whether this rose is a sport or a cross, the outcome is the same, exceptional miniature rose and a winner at the rose shows!
In summation, I have known very few roses that are as easy to grow or as rewarding as 'Alisha'. As indicated above, the only challenge to growing this delightful decorative rose is in the area of availability, as it is not widely obtainable commercially. You won't find it in your local nursery. However, it has occasionally been offered by mail order from a few sources on the Internet or at private rose society auctions over the years. 'Alisha' is worth the extra effort to find it, and I encourage mini rose lovers everywhere to give it a try.