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Rose breeding blooms from backyard to genetics lab

COLLEGE STATION – The backyard garden of a mathematician has rejuvenated Texas rose research in a way that could lead to improvements not only for the flowering bush but for some berry crops.

The late Dr. Robert Basye's estate re-established a breeding program that had withered away at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and added the goal of examining roses at the genetic level.

"One trait we are extremely interested in is the everblooming ability of roses," said Dr. David Byrne, Experiment Station horticulturist. "We want to see if it is possible to put it in other crops. Imagine a blackberry that would fruit throughout the summer."

Byrne learned from Basye, a longtime Texas A&M University math professor who spent the 10 years prior to his death in 2000 telling the horticulturist how he had bred roses on at least 10 acres behind his home.

"He wanted a carefree rose," said Byrne. "Every Friday I would visit him to learn more and to continue his goal of developing landscape roses that are essentially carefree."

Bayse's vision was on par with U.S. gardeners. In November 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed orders making the rose, which grows in all 50 states and five territories, the national flower emblem. And, the American Rose Society has declared 2002 the Year of the Rose. And more people are giving the rose – with its multitude of colors, sizes, shapes and fragrances – a chance.

Roses are a high dollar U.S. crop, valued at about $50 million a year in Texas alone. v "It is one of the more important plants because it blooms repeatedly," Byrne said. "That is a trait we got out of China and when we did, the rose really blossomed, quite literally, as a crop."

Still, though research has improved roses to the point of making them easier for even the novice gardener to grow, much research is needed to understand roses from the genetic level so new varieties can be developed.

Byrne said germplasm collected from Bayse's plants included plants without prickles, or thorns, for example.

"We are beginning to look at the genetics of the various different traits, such as how prickles are inherited," Byrne said. "So we are getting to the molecular level, and one reason to do that is to hopefully find a marker to indicate whether a plant has a certain gene or not."

The researcher plans to look at other traits that determine whether a rose is easy to grow in a landscape – such as disease resistance, fragrances and the everblooming trait.

But that's not the only goal for Texas rose breeding, Byrne noted. The program is establishing a large germplasm collection to add diversity to the breeding efforts. Byrne has traveled to China twice and is cooperating with horticulturists there to collect and evaluate roses from their native land. And with Dr. Brent Pemberton, horticulturist at the Experiment Station in Overton, Byrne has evaluated about 300 roses – wild, commercial and breeding lines – for resistance to black spot, a common malady for home growers.

Some avid home rose growers may do as Bayse did and toy with breeding their own types of roses by crossing one with another, Byrne said. But most just want a beautiful plant with lots of colorful flowers.

"You want a plant that you don't have to take care of beyond an occasional pruning," Byrne said, "one that has good growth and colors in beautiful condition throughout the year."

Texas A&M University. July 2002.

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