American Rose Annual (1922) pp. 15-18

Van Fleet, the Great Rose Breeder
David Fairchild

One of Dr. Van Fleet's close associates in the Bureau of Plant Industry was David Fairchild, who is in charge of the foreign plant and seed introduction work, and is also President of the American Genetic Association. About him Mr. Fairchild writes as follows:

Walter Van Fleet is dead, and a great genius of plant-breeding has passed on. His discoveries, for generations to come, will live to remind us of his work. Every spring those lovely roses which owe their existence to the touch of his vanished hand will bring to those who knew him the memories of a great soul. As I set down these few words I realize that I can only draw the silhouettes which from time to time his shadow cast uon my own life. The heart-breaking suddenness of his tragic end has but one saving thought. He had long wanted to see in our own South the tropical palms which in his early manhood he had wandered under on the Amazon, and he did.

Van Fleet's art was expressed not in figures of speech, neither in the colors which a painter spreads on canvas, nor yet in the forms which the sculptor fashions out of clay, but in a living substance which changes with the seasons. He worked with things which grow, and growing change their shapes and colors. Is it not something superbly great to have brought about through years of thought and effort the three greatest climbing roses of the new world-roses which in his own lifetime have been sold by the carload and planted by the hundred thousands? In his American Pillar, his Dr. W. Van Fleet, and his Silver Moon, Dr. Van Fleet has given to us the loveliest climbing roses of our generation, and there are yet waiting introduction, many superb new varieties of his origination.

It is owing to a strange coincidence that I am able to give here, partly in his own words, the story of the origin of the matchless rose which bears his own name. For the past two years I had urged the Doctor to come South and begin his plant-breeding here at the Miami Station, where the spring starts in January. Though he was keen to come, there was, until this winter, no one to take care of his new hybrid rose seedlings at Bell during his absence. It was while the preparations were being made for this looked-for trip that the Doctor strained himself by lifting some objects too heavy for his lessened strength, bringing back an old case of hernia. (His death a few days later was the direct result of a strangulated hernia, or the peritonitis occasioned by it.) He felt his deficiency, but hoping that the change to a warmer climate would bring relief he carried out his plan and took the train for Miami. It was my good fortune to be on the same train. It occurred to me that he might like to talk of his work, and quite naturally the conversation drifted to the subject of the origin of the Van Fleet rose, for which I have always had great admiration. Following a habit I have of recording in a little notebook conversations which interest me, I set down as he talked his story of this rose as he told it, little dreaming, however, that I was hearing what turned out to be almost the last words of this remarkable man.

In the early 90's the Doctor and his wife were attracted to the remarkable colony at Ruskin, Tenn., to which came such men as the Russian Prince, Kropotkin, and the famous journalist, Arthur Brisbane. It was here that the rose later named for the Doctor was originated. He had taken South, along with a host of other seedlings, a weakly little plant which itself was a typical Wichuraiana, resulting from a cross with the Safrano rose, a well-known old fashioned Tea. Using this seedling as the female parent, he worked upon it pollen from the French Hybrid Tea, Souv. du President Carnot. But three or four heps matured, and these he took with him, when his medical service at Ruskin terminated, back to Little Silver, N. J., where he later sowed the few sound seeds they contained. Of these seeds but a few germinated and grew. This was in the fall of 1899, and in 1901 the seedlings bloomed. Among about 150 others in bloom at the same time, this particular rose showed at once its remarkable freshness of color and unusual bud character. Mrs. Van Fleet and the Doctor agreed to name it Daybreak.

Then Patrick O'Mara, of the firm of Peter Henderson & Co., visited the gardens, and he said when he saw in bloom the few plants of Daybreak that the Doctor had propagated, "We've got to have that at once," though he criticized its seeming lack of vigor. The Doctor accepted O'Mara's offer carrying the right to name the new rose and fully control its sale, and he was paid $75, although at that time he thought it should have been worth $250. As was his custom, Dr. Van Fleet retained a plant for himself—a very fortunate thing!

The several precious plants of this Daybreak were delivered in the fall to Mr. O'Mara, and the latter was told to start its propagation slowly in a coolhouse, but this was not done. The gardeners of the firm put the plants in a hothouse and forced them into bloom. The blooms were flimsy and did not impress the other members of the Henderson firm. O'Mara said, "It looked devilish good to me, but it doesn't hold up."

Here the Doctor took up the story in his own words:

"The plants were taken out of the greenhouse and sent to Charles Henderson's place at Hackensack, and planted there in their tender condition. Bitter weather came along and killed every one of them, but I was not told. I waited five or six years for the firm to bring it out. It was due to come out in 1906, but it did not come. O'Mara came to Little Silver for other things, but said little about Daybreak. My own plant in the meantime had grown into a beautiful bush with a big root system, and I had made a propagation or two to make it safe. When the 1906 Henderson catalogue came out and Daybreak was not in it, I wrote to O'Mara, and he then told me he had lost it all. I told him that wouldn't do, that I had stock, and that it was the finest thing I had. I told him the public was entitled to it, and that if he wouldn't put it out I would. He said, 'Bring some up and show it to Charles Henderson.'

"It was in good bloom then, and I brought up to New York an armful of it, and also an armful of the Silver Moon with its long-stemmed flowers. O'Mara was delighted when he saw these, and said, 'Business or no business, we'll go right in and see Mr. Henderson!' The latter gentleman said at once, 'We have had no such novelties as these for years. They are revelations; we want both of them.' They both liked the Van Fleet best, because a pink rose is a better seller. Henderson said, 'I'll pay the Doctor anything he asks for Daybreak and this white rose.' They sent their propagator right down and took the bud wood. I asked him $100 for it.

"Then the roses disappeared from view for three or four years, or until 1910, when the Henderson catalogue featured both of them. They had coined for the white rose the name of Silver Moon—a very happy name.

"Patrick O'Mara wrote that Charles Henderson was going to name the other rose after me. I objected, and asked him to continue to call it Daybreak, but O'Mara insisted, and thus it was finally named Dr. W. Van Fleet."

I give here this account of the first beginnings of these two great roses for two reasons: first, because as the years pass and the Van Fleet becomes perhaps the best known as well as the finest climber in America, some of its admirers will want to know how it began; and, second, also because it shows how strong were the good Doctor's convictions regarding the suitability of a newly made hybrid rose, and how persistently he fought for its recognition by the public.

On another occasion I shall want to pay tribute to Dr. Van Fleet as a discoverer in the field of plant-breeding, but to those who love roses and who were never permitted to be with him in the height of the rose season at his plant-breeding garden in Maryland, it may be interesting to know that it is very doubtful if there was ever brought together in this country so select a collection of species of the wild roses of the workd as he had there.

From his collection, in which the Doctor worked for several years, are coming some of the finest hybrid forms, which have already shown that they are as perfectly adapted to our conditions as the English-bred roses are to England. It is a pleasant thought that for many years to come these productions of his, like poems published after the poet's death, will appear to remind us that he once lived.

Could their be any finer ambition than to make this workd more beautiful after we are gone? And could there be any more beautiful way to do this than the one that Dr. Van Fleet has chosen?

His last resting-place is in the hills of Pennsylvania, but his flowers will be his memorials everywhere.