Dot to Dot

Dot to Dot

I am sitting in the passenger seat of a dusty old Fiat as it climbs through back roads to a rose nursery in the hills near San Feliu de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona. We have just been to the 65th National Rose Festival in the small town, escaping the noisy crowds for a long celebratory lunch.

 

Struggling with the language differences, we drive in companionable silence. After so much exuberance it is a poignant moment. The tall, elderly man at the wheel is Pedro Dot – the third generation of Spain’s greatest family of rose breeders.

It turns out, he is also the last. I am here to record the end of an era. Pedro, who is 71, is retiring. His son has not followed the family tradition. In the coming months, after a century in business, the Dot nursery is closing.

Martin with Pere Dot at his nursery near San Feliu de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona

My journey to this spot began a few years earlier. I cannot remember what caused me to plant Mme Gregoire Staechelin’ in my garden, but it was a good decision. She is one of the first roses to pop each spring and a favourite.

The buds are shaped like a long pout. Looking at them you want to pucker your lips in imitation. But if the bud is a pout and the bloom a kiss, this is no polite peck on the cheek. It is a flamenco dress of a rose – a large swirl of ruffled petals in myriad shades of pink. Leave it be and in the Autumn the wall will be adorned with huge orange hips.

Rosa ‘Madame Grégoire Staechelin’, taken in my garden.

This is my only Spanish rose – the country is not renowned for being at the forefront of rose- breeding. And the year of its creation – 1927 – places its breeder on the brink of a period of political upheaval that must have made the business incredibly difficult. So, who was he?

Pedro Dot

Pedro Dot – in Catalonia known as Pere Dot i Martínez – was born in 1885 on the estate of the Marqués de Monistrol near San Feliu de Llobregat. His father, Simón, was estate manager and specialised in trees. In 1899 Simón made the bold decision to start his own general nursery.

That same year Pedro left school, aged 14, but rather than join his father he was apprenticed to pioneering, if not hugely successful, Spanish rose breeder Joaquín Aldrufeu. From there Pedro went to Belgium and France to extend his gardening education. In Paris he learned how to hybridise roses and worked at the Bagatelle gardens, under their creator, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier. Here he spent time in the new rose trial beds – the world’s first – seeing the latest varieties and, occasionally, the breeders who had created them.

When the First World War broke out he returned to Spain to work with his father but the two fell out when Pedro said he wanted to breed roses and do so exclusively. His father told him there was no money in roses. Pedro decided to prove him wrong.

The rift may have widened when the Condesa de Sástago – wife of Simón’s old boss, the Marqués de Monistrol – lent Pedro Dot enough to buy a field and begin his adventure.

His first creation, in 1923, was the pink Hybrid Tea, ‘Francisco Corbera’. More roses followed. In 1927 he produced ‘Mme Grégoire Staechelin’ and the hybrid spinosissima, ‘Nevada’.

It is ironic that these two roses – probably the most widely cultivated Dot roses today – are pink and white. As a breeder Pedro Dot was interested in strong colour, perhaps driven by the fact that the brilliant Mediterranean sun can drain life out of subtle colours, making the blooms look insipid. He built on the work of Pernet-Ducher, who bred ‘Soleil d’Or’ – the world’s first repeat-flowering orange-yellow rose. The roses in this series of Hybrid Teas are often called ‘Pernetianas’.

In 1929 Dot introduced the coppery orange ‘Federico Casas’. Soon after followed ‘Condesa de Sástago’, one of the world’s first bi-coloured roses – red one side of the petal and yellow the other. It was named after the patron that helped him get started.

These vivacious Spanish roses had appeal in the US, where the entrepreneurial Pennsylvanian nurseryman, Robert Pyle, scented an opportunity. Knowing they would sell well in similar climatic conditions, Pyle agreed to sell Dot’s roses under licence. Before the introduction in America of the world’s first plant patenting legislation, in 1930, Pyle would pay Pedro Dot royalties for three years. The legislation gave the breeder patent protection for 17 years. The relationship with Pyle was to play a key role in keeping the Dot business afloat.

Civil war

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century there was political turmoil in Spain. In July 1936 civil war broke out when Nationalist generals attempted a military coup to overturn the left-leaning Republican government. Supporters from around the world came to Spain to fight for both sides. Hitler threw his weight – and aircraft – behind the Nationalists. The violence that followed was seen as a dress rehearsal for the Second World War – aerial bombing, the destruction of cities and the deaths and murders of thousands of civilians.

Catalonia was pro-Republic. Dot’s two sons Marino and Simón were conscripted to the Republican army in 1938 and, when the war ended in 1939, were detained in a concentration camp for a year.

Pedro Dot had been a member of a socialist party before the war and his political leanings are not well hidden. In 1931, he produced ‘Catalonia’. That was the year his homeland received its first statute of autonomy from the Republican government, granting it significant powers of self-government. During the war he released roses named after Catalan patriots killed in the fighting, like the poet ‘Ramón Bach’, as well as Republican towns (‘Girona’ and ‘Lleida’) not yet overcome by Franco’s nationalists. These roses may have been commissioned by the Republican government of Barcelona.

He also received valuable support from Pyle who was still able to propagate and market Dot’s roses when the breeder could get them out across the Atlantic. Nurserymen elsewhere, like Harry Wheatcroft in England, and Henri Guillot and Francis Meilland in France, were also keen supporters, though the Second World War brought a pause in their efforts.

After the war, in the 1950s, fellow Catalan breeder Cebrià Camprubí’, dedicated one of his roses to Franco’s wife – ‘Su Excelencia Señora de Franco’. Politically astute and commercially savvy perhaps, but not something Dot ever did.

Miniatures

Pere Dot with a rose of his own creation, ‘Joana Raspall i Juanola’, named after the Catalan writer.
Image: Martin Stott

In 1940 Dot had begun a new stream of experimentation when he created one of the first miniature rose bushes, crossing Correvon’s small rose ‘Rouletii’ with a Hybrid Tea of his own, ‘Eduardo Toda’, to create ‘Estrellita de Oro’ (‘Baby Gold Star’ in the US). Others followed over the next 20 years, like the creamy white ‘Para Ti’ (1946), ‘Rosina’ (1951) and the pretty white rose, ‘Si’ (1957).

After the war his sons joined him in the business. He continued breeding miniatures. They focused mainly on Hybrid Teas, attempting to grow roses with purple and deep blue hues.

At the age of 60, Pedro Dot decided to retire, moving to Majorca from May to October, leaving his sons and then grandsons, Pere, Jordi and Albert to carry on the work. He died in November 1976, aged 91.

End of the line

Today Pere is the last of the Dots left in the business. As we stand in the glasshouses looking at the benches of remaining plants, the old man reflects on a life in roses.

He says: “It has been many years. I started helping in the greenhouses when I was 12 during the school holidays. My father and grandfather worked together and taught me how to graft. We used to propagate 25,000 roses a year, but I’m getting tired. I’m selling down the stock and once it is gone then it’s over.”

His great grandfather once argued there was no money in roses. This Pere Dot agrees. “It has been a lot of work and not much money,” he says with a wry smile. “But I have had a happy life.”

Who was Mme Gregoire Staechelin?

Disagreements abound over how to pronounce Staechelin. Dot biographer Jaume Garcia i Urpi says it is pronounced “Stykelin”; Jack Harkness[1] argues “Stahklin”; Roger Mann[2] suggests “Shtahklin”. Similar disagreements abound over who she was. French rose historian Odile Masquelier says she was the wife of a Swiss ambassador in Madrid. Mann claims the woman was Dot’s friend and this was a wedding gift to her. He tells how a Swiss friend had an uncle at the University of Basel in the early 1930s. One of the professors was Dr Grégoire Staechelin. His lectures, it is said, were boring but students crowded into them hoping for an invitation to lunch with his charming and very beautiful Spanish wife. Is that why in the US ‘Mme Grégoire Staechelin’ goes by the name “Spanish Beauty”?

 

[1] The Makers of Heavenly Roses – Jack Harkness 1985

[2] Naming the Rose – Roger Mann 2008

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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 blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.