CANADIAN HERITAGE: Percy H. Wright


Percy Wright ca. 1975

Percy Wright was born in Lachine, Québec in 1898 — the son of an Anglican minister. When nine years old, he migrated with his family, including two sisters, to the Tramping Lake District of Saskatchewan. As homesteaders, they lived in a sod house, striving to grow grain on marginal land, and experiencing many hardships.

Until he was 14 years old, Percy was mostly self-taught because he suffered from a recurring debilitating illness. During these periods of inactivity, he engrossed himself in books from his lather's library, and when at 17 he contracted measles, he became fascinated with an article on the laws of plant inheritance, as worked out by Gregor Mendel. It ultimately determined the course of his life.

When his father returned to the ministry in 1921 and the farm was sold, Percy then completed his grade eleven studies, and enrolled at the Saskatoon Normal School. He taught in rural schools for a few years, saving his money, and purchased land at Wilkie, Sask. He opened a fruit nursery, and using his profits, enrolled in Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan that fall. He won the First Year Scholarship in Agriculture in 1926, and the Balman Memorial in 1927

Percy Wright excelled in English, and transferred from the Agriculture program to obtain his BA. degree in English two years later. He was awarded the University Gold Medal, and the Copland Scholarship as the "most distinguished student" with "Honours of Distinction." In 1931, he received his Masters Degree, and having won the I.O.D.E. Scholarship, enrolled at the University of Toronto to further his studies, However, a lack of funds forced him to withdraw, and he returned to his nursery. He had previously completed requirements for his Ph.D., but due to illness, was unable to take his final oral examination.

Mr. Wright's illness bothered him for nearly 30 years, until diagnosed as HcL deficiency, and with this corrected, his health dramatically improved. He became interested in nutrition, experimenting with Vit B and yeast, obtaining them in natural form where possible, and eating sprouted seeds of alfalfa, Mung beans, etc. Percy Wright was breeding and cross-breeding thousands of lilies, gooseberries, cherry plums, crabapples, etc. while studying and working at this nursery. However, in 1938, extreme draught forced him to close the business and work as a lecturer for the Saskatchewan Dept. of Extension. He moved north, and purchased land at Carrott River.

Mr. Wright married Ruth Purkis of Toronto in 1940, and their family grew to three daughters and a son. In 1944 they opened the Moose Range Rose Nursery, but lost everything in a tragic house fire that year. Percy was discouraged, but with support from neighbours, the family set about rebuilding their lives.

Mr. Wright accepted a position at the University of Saskatchewan marking papers, and for the next ten years, the family moved each fall to Sutherland to be near his work, returning to the nursery in the spring. Percy continued his plant breeding of lilies, apples and roses, rebuilding their home as well. His interests and published writings, covered many subjects — horticulture, music, education, economics and nutrition, arid provided much needed additional income.

Recovery was short lived, however, as in 1954 severe flooding wiped out the nursery. Once again he returned to teaching to support his family. Percy Wright's strong pioneer spirit had helped him survive drought, fire and flood, but teaching proved to be a "difficult experience". He took the position of editorial writer and reporter with the Star Phoenix newspaper in Saskatoon in 1956, and remained in this work until 1966, when he was compelled to retire.

Mr. Wright then devoted full time to his plant breeding, continuing his prolific correspondence with hybridizers in Europe. Scandinavia and the United States, exchanging seed, pollen and seedlings — as well as sage advice on nutrition!

For want of space, he placed seedlings in the gardens of friends and relatives, and later he "borrowed” an acre at Honeywood Nursery, where he developed his rosybloom crabapple "Thunderchild". He described it as "a chance seedling given to the Forestry Station, resistant to blackspot". By 1982, Percy Wright had been credited with the introduction of 40 cultivars — 24 roses. 6 honeysuckles, and a number of lilies, and although he continued his work until his late eighties, there is not a complete record of his successes. In 1980, the Saskatchewan Nursery Trades Association, chose "Thunderchild" as its official tree for "Celebrate Saskatchewan", and he was honoured by various Horticultural associations for his plant breeding work.

Mr. Wright made his first rose crosses in 1931, using three native rose species. His first success was Rosa Macounii x Rugosa Hybrid 'Hansa', which produced 'Mary L. Evans', a most prolific rose! He gave away dozens of plants, and when years later, he was asked to identity a hedge rose, he discovered it was one of his own creation!.

This initial success resulted in a continuing interest in rose breeding. and Mr. Wright concentrated on hardiness, well-formed blooms, and ever-blooming qualities. From 1934 onwards, he received between ten and twenty thousand hybrid rose seeds annually, but was not always successful with germination. In 1938 he produced 'Ross Rambler’, a rugosa which proved very useful in his later work. In 1948, a Rosa Altaica x Persian Yellow, produced 'Hazeldean', H. Spn. which is disease resistant. Later, Percy tried unsuccessfully, to introduce this one to Europe, through the Meilland family, but finally signed an agreement with a Dutch firm in 1978.

About 1987. Mr. Wright realized that orange rust on roses was serious, and "bred for immunity from this plague". In 1970, his goat was a hardy (to -40 F.), everblooming pillar rose, 8 feet or more in height, and he used Hybrid Teas x 'Ross Rambler' to achieve it. In the late sixties, Percy's interest turned to Miniature roses, and ground cover varieties, in order to develop a hardy polyantha. He succeeded in 1970, and introduced 'Polly Won'. By 1980 a rose resistant to curculio, blackspot and mildew, was of interest. Using Laxa Retzius x Hybrid Teas, he succeeded in producing 'Scarlet Ranger' and 'Display'. About this time, he also had his first success in budding roses by using the T bud, as opposed to the plate bud. He was elated!

Mr. Wright's introductions were eagerly sought by nurserymen, but he received little remuneration, and his hybridizing was restricted by financial limitations. His writings supported his plant breeding, and he was pleased that "the Canadian Plant Patent Law would soon be in effect so that I can introduce new originations with a reward, to enable me to carry on plant breeding for another ten to twenty years".

At 82 years of age, Mr. Wright had the vigour of a much younger man, and although he suffered crop failures from 1979 to 1981, due to grasshoppers and caterpillars, he had plans for the future, and in 1983, regretted not having used Rosa Canina in his work!

Mrs. Wright predeceased her husband in 1981, and as his children did not share his interests, Percy continued his work alone for several years. He died in 1989, at the age of 90 years, leaving a wealth of horticultural originations, and a standard at which to aim.

Acknowledgements:
Lynn M. Collicutt, Research Station, Morden, Manitoba
Roger Vick, Friends of the Botanic Garden, Univ. of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden

Betty Biddulph
Winnipeg, Manitoba