Perhaps you’ve come across a garden in which lives a rose that blooms only once a year, unfurling crimson, yellow-centered semi-double flowers that fade to the color of a bloody handkerchief. Its foliage is a little prone to black spot, and its lanky canes are unable to stay upright, preferring to lean on a fence or other shrubbery. If this description sounds familiar, it’s bound to be a rose called Dr. Huey, still making house calls after all these years.
In 1914 the first edition of The Practical Book of Outdoor Rose Growing was published. The author was George C. Thomas of Philadelphia, and the dedication page reads:
This book is affectionately dedicated Dr. Robert Huey, who gave me my first inspiration in rose growing.
Dr. Huey was besides a rose breeder a dentist who pioneered a technique of whitening discolored teeth. In his spare time he was president of the English Setter Club of Philadelphia.
George Thomas, the author, was interested in growing roses outdoors. The estate hothouses that kept roses on the 19th century table were becoming cumbrous and too expensive to maintain in the age of modernity. His mission was to create hardy new roses that could thrive in a regular garden environment.
He bred his roses at Bloomfield Farm, incidentally now part of Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum. A crimson flowered wichuriaina seedling he developed in 1914 was named in honor of his friend and colleague, the illustrious dentist.
Most of Thomas’ hybridizing work reached obsolescence pretty quickly. But in the 1950s it was discovered that one of the best and toughest roses to use as a rootstock when grafting was old Dr. Huey. Soon many of the roses for sale in this country went out into the world on Dr. Huey rootstock. This is why it’s still so pervasive in old gardens and cemeteries today.
When the original graft is either cut back too low or dies off, tough Dr. Huey sprouts from the base.
If you have Dr. Huey in your garden and you feel like getting rid of it, don’t feel too guilty. Whoever put it there did so unintentionally. And if you like your Dr. Huey, now that you know its history you can appreciate it even more.