A fond farewell for Dickson roses

A fond farewell for Dickson roses

One of the great family names of rose-breeding history is “Dickson”. The Dickson rose nursery in Newtownards in Northern Ireland dates back to the first half of the 19th century and the family have been breeding roses since 1879. It makes them the oldest rose breeding family in the world.

But this story is coming to a close. Colin Dickson, the sixth generation of Dickson nurserymen, has hung up his budding knife. He is shutting up the business this December. But his final roses look to be as good as any he has created – a fitting end to a long family history of triumphs. 

Looking at the Dickson history is a bit like reading one of those Old Testament passages with somebody begetting somebody else as we establish the family lineage. So it is only appropriate that we should start with “In the beginning….”.

Alexander Dickson I (1801-1880) established the nursery in 1836. Dickson was a Scot who had moved from Perth and settled in Northern Ireland, first working as a gardener before setting up on his own. Newtownards is just ten miles south east of Belfast – a fast growing city at the time. Dickson found customers plentiful and the business took root. He was not on his own for too long. His sons George (1832-194) and Hugh came into the business (though Hugh later left to set up on his own). George begat four more sons, who all worked for him when he took over. Two of them in particular took to rose breeding – Alexander II (1857-1949) and George II.

Science and competition

In the 1870s the rose-breeding market was dominated by the French. Few would have believed that someone in the Northern Ireland climate could breed blooms to compete. But then came Henry Bennett, a former cattle farmer from Wiltshire who changed the world of rose breeding. Whereas the the French left cross-pollination to the bees, Bennett applied a more scientific approach – the same one he’d used for breeding prize cattle. He began selectively cross pollinating. Bennett was a great marketer, in the Victorian tradition. In 1878 he exhibited his first “Pedigree hybrid of the tea rose”.

 

Clockwise from top right: ‘Lady Mary Corry’ [Dickson, 1900], ‘Duchess of Wellington’, [Dickson, 1909], Ards Rover’ [Dickson, 1898] and ‘Irish Elegance’ [Dickson, 1905] Images: Charles Quest-Ritson

We’ll learn more about him in another blog. Suffice to say he inspired the Dicksons who set out to breed their own roses the following year. Alexander II took their “First Set of Pedigree Seedlings” to compete in London at the National Rose Society Show in 1886 – a red Hybrid Perpetual, ‘Earl of Dufferin’, ‘Lady Helen Stewart’ (another red), and a pink Tea they called ‘Ethel Brownlow’.

 

The British were the first in the world to have a national rose show. It was a great way for breeders to advertise their creations and helped raise the bar – Britain now began to dominate the rose breeding industry. Dickson’s first Gold Medal came in 1892 with ‘Mrs W. J. Grant’. More successes followed.

The opening pages of The Rosarian’s Year Book of 1896 show an advert for Alex Dickson & Sons. It boasts that by this point Dicksons was the holder of “SEVEN gold medals by the National Rose Society”. By its centenary in 1936 the company had won so many gold medals the Dicksons had them melted down and formed into golden roses, mounted and presented as a mayoral chain for the Borough of Newtownards.

 

Left: An advert for Dickson Nurseries from The Rosarian’s Year Book of 1896. Right: ‘Tom Wood’ [Dickson, 1896] Image: Charles Quest-Ritson

 

Post-war recovery

During the second World War rose production ceased in Britain and the fields were turned over to food production. It took time for breeding to start again. Alexander Dickson III (1893-1975) – known as ‘Sandy’ – began slowly rebuilding his rose breeding department.

In 1958 he produced a fiery orange red Floribunda, ‘Dickson’s Flame’, which won the National Rose Society’s supreme award, as well as a beautiful orange and red Floribunda, ‘Shepherd’s Delight’.

Sandy’s son, Pat Dickson (1926-2012), began breeding in 1957 producing some outstanding roses over his lifetime, including ‘Grandpa Dickson’ (1966) and ‘Red Devil’ (1967). ‘Redgold’ (1967) won an All America Award. ‘Beautiful Britain’ (1983) was voted ‘Rose of the Year’ by professional growers.

Pat Dickson’s son Colin started in 1977. It was one of his best years, resulting in ‘Elina’, ‘Tequila Sunrise’ ‘Disco Dancer’ ‘Lovely Lady’ and ‘Freedom’. He says: “I was just brought up with breeding. I was at boarding school from 13 to 18 and we were allowed out on Sundays to go home. My father would come and pick me up and he was doing the hybridising at the time. He’d say he hadn’t finished and needed some help, so that’s how I got started. It was in my blood!”

Pat and Colin Dickson evaluating the rose field with Sammy the dog, about 2007. Image Dickson Roses

Picking winners

At the height of production, working in greenhouses 110 feet long x 30 feet wide, he was generating 15,000 crosses and quarter of a million seeds a year but found that was too many. He was brutal in weeding out weaklings. He says: “You know what a good rose is – you have to cut the rubbish out quickly. The French breeder, Meilland, would save everything but as soon as I could tell it wasn’t going to make the grade I kicked it out to let the others mature and give them space. I like a rose that stands up and has a good neck so you don’t have to bend yours to look at it.”

 

Hall of Fame rose ‘Elina’ [Dickson, 1983] Image: Charles Quest-Ritson

 

His favourite rose is the beautiful pale-yellow Hybrid Tea, ‘Elina’ (1983), which is a Hall of Fame rose. There is a family dispute as to who bred it. Pat believed he had because it was not in Colin’s main breeding house. Colin says he was using the greenhouse as an overspill and that it was he who decided to take pollen from the Kordes rose, ‘Lolita’, and cross it with Pat’s creation, ‘Nana Mouskouri’. Was the dispute ever resolved? “We agreed to disagree,” he laughs.

But this story shows how breeders use each other’s creations. Colin was using roses from the great Kordes family business (which goes back to 1887); his friend Wilhelm Kordes III (1953-2016) was also using Dickson roses. “You will definitely find ‘Elina’ in the genes of many Kordes roses,” says Thomas Proll, the head of breeding at Kordes today.

Caption: Since the inception of the Roses of the Year Competition, Dickson Roses have won ten: 1983 – ‘Beautiful Britain’ (Dicfire), 1987 – ‘Sweet Magic’ (Dicmagic), 1990 – ‘Harvest Fayre’ (Dicnorth), 1991 – ‘Melody Maker’ (Dicqueen), 1986 – ‘Gentle Touch’ (Diclulu), 1993 -‘Dawn Chorus’ (Dicquasar), 1996 – ‘Magic Carpet’ (Jaclover), 2000 – ‘Irish Eyes’ (Dicwitness), 2018 – ‘Lovestruck’ (Dicommatac), 2022 – ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (Dictwix) (pictured above – Dickson Roses).

The last great Dickson roses

If Colin’s rose breeding career got off to an astonishing start, his finish looks to be just as strong. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (Dictwix) was named Rose of the Year in the UK in 2022. This was the tenth time Dickson’s had won the accolade since the competition’s inception. Colin’s last rose was meant to be ‘A Fond Farewell’ (Dicchiffon – pictured at the top of this piece) but then came another ‘Honey, Bee Mine’ (Dicsolar), which won the gold medal at the Rochfords rose trials in 2023. All three look like stunning roses – A fitting end to a rose breeding dynasty.

These roses are now with contract grower Griffins Roses. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ is available now. ‘A Fond Farewell’ should be available for garden centres and nurseries to pre-order next year, with ‘Honey, Bee Mine’ available from 2025. You can order directly through The Garden Rose Company and plant a bit of rose history in your garden.   

Dickson roses

Left: ‘Honey, Bee Mine’ (Dicsolar) and ‘Storyteller’, a particular favourite of mine for obvious reasons. Images: Dickson Roses

 

 

Banner image: ‘A Fond Farewell’ (Dicchiffon) [Dickson] Image: Dickson Roses

Share this story

About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden history blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.