Skip to main content

Felicitas Svejda, who died in Ottawa on Jan. 19 at the age of 95 from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, innovated throughout her career.

Nature did not create roses able to hunker down through a bitter winter then dazzle with beautiful blooms throughout Canada's short growing season. That feat was accomplished by Felicitas Svejda, an Austrian-born geneticist who used her steady hand, scientific rigour and common sense to hybridize roses.

During her 33-year tenure at the government-run Central Experimental Farm, in Ottawa, she created a collection of blooms – named after explorers – that thrived in Canada's rose-unfriendly climate and are still grown here and all over the world.

"The Explorer Roses are Canada's greatest contribution to the world of roses," the Canadian Rose Society declares on its website.

Ms. Svejda, who died in Ottawa on Jan. 19 at the age of 95 from the effects of Alzheimer's disease, innovated throughout her career. She had to: When she started to work with roses in 1961, the available varieties of these delicate blooms could not survive outside of Canada's balmiest locales, such as Ontario's Niagara Peninsula and the B.C. coast.

"In order to be hardy, you have to get your blooming done with and start protecting. To be floriferous, you have to produce further growth that will have a rose on it, and further growth [beyond that]," says Harry McGee, a London, Ont.-based amateur rose cultivator who was a long-time friend of Ms. Svejda. "She was faced with a big, capital-B, capital-I, capital-G challenge to find a rose that would do essentially totally different things."

Ms. Svejda pulled off what amounted to a genetic miracle by starting with unexpected rose breeds. "She brought in bloodlines that weren't being used, that would not at face value be commercially successful," says Mark Disero, an amateur rosarian and the organizer of the 2008 All Canadian Rose Show. "She had vision."

For instance, she did early work with Rosa rugosa, a disease-resistant plant that bloomed often but didn't look like a traditional rose. (The move was met with opposition among colleagues and in the rose community.) She then paired it with others over two or more generations to get the right look and hardiness too.

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Svejda also rejected the gardening norms of the day, refusing to coddle her seedlings. No fertilizer, no pesticides and no covering up over the winter. As a result, only her strongest hybrids lived and went on to parent others. "They're so sturdy, they can sit in the back of a large botanical garden and survive; they don't need to be pampered," Mr. Disero says.

In 1968, she launched the first-ever national trial of ornamental shrubs in Canada, a program that lasted 20 years. She sent her roses and other plants to far-flung locations that included Fredericton, Kapuskasing, Ont., and Swift Current, Sask., as well as gardens in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"It cannot be overemphasized how important it is to evaluate plants in different climatic conditions," she wrote later. Those multilocation trials helped ensure the final hybrids that eventually went up for sale across Canada and the world could adapt to various growing conditions.

"There were secondary benefits, too; she made friends," Mr. McGee says. "She spread the knowledge of what they were doing at the Central Experimental Farm far and wide." Over the years, her network grew to include horticulturists around the world.

Her breeding program led to the creation of 25 roses, including John Cabot, Martin Frobisher, Jens Munk and Champlain. (They were named for explorers because these early visitors to Canada had to figure out how to survive the winter.) Some of her most popular blooms, such as the climber Quadra, were released after her retirement. She was never asked to create roses that also resisted insects, but many of her hybrids did. Henry Hudson is so hardy it can survive in Zone 2, in places such as Kapuskasing and Fort McMurray, Alta.

She also developed other ornamental plants, including five hardy weigelias named after dances (including Minuet and Tango) and the forsythia Northern Gold.

Ms. Svejda backed her work with a significant body of published papers. She documented the creation of the Explorer Rose series in the journal Roses-Canada, the content of which was made into a book called The Canadian Explorer Roses, in 2008.

Her tough cultivars are now grown across Canada and in chilly climates such as Finland, Russia and her native Austria. Rosarians in other harsh climates – such as the Nevada desert – have modified her plants to endure their local weather. When Claire Laberge began working as a horticulturist at the Montreal Botanical Garden in 1989, the entire Explorer Rose series had already been planted. "They are still there now, they are really strong plants," Ms. Laberge says. "Her roses will last another 100 years," Mr. Disero says.

Once, when Ms. Svejda went to visit Mr. McGee, she stopped at a garden centre to buy him a rose plant as a host gift. "Isn't that like bringing coal to Newcastle?" quipped her friend and frequent travelling companion Shirley Cummings. "She didn't give a damn if I had roses. They were the main point of her life," Mr. McGee says. Ms. Svejda could not find any of her own breeds at the side-of-the-road garden centre, but she picked out two shrubs anyway. "Both those roses are alive and well in my formal garden," Mr. McGee says. "She knew how to pick them."

Felicitas Svejda was born in Vienna on Nov. 8, 1920, an only child. She earned her PhD in engineering and agricultural science from the Hochschule fur Bodenkultur, in Vienna, writing her thesis on the decline of grapevine farming in Austria. She worked as a research assistant in agricultural economics at the school from 1947 to 1951. She then moved to Sweden to work at the Swedish Seed Association's plant-breeding station in Svalov.

In 1953, she moved to Canada and worked at the Central Experimental Farm, which is run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Her hope in immigrating was to work on cereals – Canada being known for its grain farming. But her bosses refused to put a woman on such a key job, so Ms. Svejda worked as statistician in the cereal division. In 1961, she moved over to the ornamental plants division and was asked to develop roses. (The gender politics in this division were less of a problem. Before her, Isabella Preston had introduced lilies and other ornamental plants through the farm.)

"I knew nothing about roses," she wrote later. "This was a blessing because I had no preconceived notion. I had to learn." She studied the genetics of roses carefully and based her breeding choices on scientific information.

But backyard hybridizers were making strides, too, and Ms. Svejda would travel to visit them. "She had a lot of respect for amateur work," Mr. McGee says. She was very transparent about her use of their techniques and the samples they gave her.

Ms. Svejda spent the next 25 years introducing numerous new roses and other plants.

She retired in 1986, but remained engaged in horticulture by speaking at conferences and writing. She travelled a great deal in retirement. While on a cruise she met Ms. Cummings, a widow who lived in Ottawa, and the two became close friends and frequent travelling companions. One trip took them to Austria where they visited a gardener who was growing the entire Explorer Rose series – they apparently flourished in the climate there.

In 2005, the Central Experimental Farm opened the Explorer Rose Garden, which featured all 25 varieties. Ms. Svejda developed the first 13 cultivars during her tenure at the farm, and the others were developed by combining cuttings from her original plants with more recent varieties.

Among the accolades Ms. Svejda collected during her lifetime was the certificate of merit from the Royal National Rose Society in England in 1985 for the rose John Cabot. She was given an honorary doctor of science degree from York University in 2000.

Through her many years in Canada, Ms. Svejda held onto old-world traditions. When Mr. McGee first met her, he kissed her outstretched hand in greeting, and that act turned him into an instant favourite. She would instruct him to sit beside her at events. "You did what she said," Mr. McGee recalls. She was very accommodating of those who mispronounced her last name. But in all other matters she was very no-nonsense and straightforward. "She did not suffer fools gladly," Mr. McGee says.

She had no family in Canada and never married. "That's why they called her the mother of the Explorer Roses," Mr. McGee says. "They were her children, her only descendants."

To submit an I Remember:

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Interact with The Globe