Frank Benardella – The Show Rose Man by Robert B. Martin Jr.


Showstopper Ivor

‘Show Stopper’ miniflora 2007 AOE winner. Photo by Ivor Mace.

Like many a serious rosarian, friends and acquaintances knew Frank Benardella as “The Rose Man”. To those of us who show roses, he was more. With roses, Frank Benardella was a show man, a superb national level exhibitor and a breeder of outstanding show roses, a man who left an indelible mark on the world of show roses. In this article, I seek to honor this great man by telling the story of Frank Benardella’s show roses.

The Exhibitor
Frank August Benardella was born on July 5, 1932 in Englewood, New Jersey. Until his death on January 30, 2010, I never knew his middle name. Perhaps he didn’t use it from modesty because as an adjective it suggested he should inspire reverence or admiration, or be considered of supreme dignity or grandeur, as the dictionary would have it. But this is speculation. To me and to everyone else that knew him, he was just Frank.

Frank graduated from Tenafly High School in Tenafly, New Jersey and later received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University, the largest independent university in New Jersey. During the Korean War, Frank served in the Army. On his discharge in 1952, he returned to New Jersey where he went to work as an executive at Goody Products, Inc. a leading producer of hair accessories for the American market. In 1954 he married his sweetheart, June, and in the late 1950s took up growing roses in River Vale, New Jersey.

Frank always had a fascination with how things worked and an obsession to make them work better. So it is not surprising that his interest in growing roses soon turned to figuring out how to make them grow better. He joined the Jersey Shore Rose Society, of which he would be a lifetime member. He began to show roses with considerable success. Exact figures are not available, this being before I began to keep detailed national records of show results and Frank kept no records himself. His garden grew to 600 – or was it 800? – roses. There were three refrigerators in the basement to hold cut roses. He began to slip away at lunchtime from work on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays before shows to pick the exhibition choice blooms of the day, placing them in the refrigerator according to the temperature setting and development stage of the blooms. He studied methods to transport roses for display at rose shows. He was one of the early developers of what became known among exhibitors as the “New Jersey Box”, a large 120-quart cooler then manufactured by Gott – modified with internal racks for transporting roses under refrigeration to the show. And, he began to contemplate showing roses at the large national shows against the great exhibitors of the day.

Frank’s first national success came at the fall 1967 national show of the American Rose Society – and it was huge. There he won both the J. Horace McFarland Memorial Award and the Earl of Warwick Urn. The McFarland calls for seven different hybrid tea blooms in separate vases and is recognized as the premiere fall national trophy. The Warwick Urn calls for six specimens, all AARS winners. It is a difficult and challenging entry. To win both trophies at a national convention, particularly in those years when the competition was strong, was unusual. Unfortunately, no record exists of the roses in those entries, nor even the location of the convention. Years later, as I was compiling the records of the national trophy winning roses I wrote to Frank to ask. He didn’t remember.

Later records are more clear. The following year, Frank attended the fall 1968 ARS convention in Atlanta, Georgia. There he repeated his win of the J. Horace McFarland Memorial Award with an entry of ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Carla’, ‘Chicago Peace’, ‘Christian Dior’, ‘Lady X’, ‘Tradition’ and ‘White Queen’. To that he added the National Pacific Rose Society Challenge Trophy, an award given to an exhibitor traveling at least 200 miles to the show, for an entry of three hybrid tea blooms. His winning entry consisted of ‘Carla’, ‘Honey Favorite’ and ‘Lady X’. Frank’s non-stop drive of nearly 900 miles qualified easily for the distance required.

That drive was as nothing compared to the one he took to attend the 1970 spring ARS convention in Denver. With June, he drove non-stop for nearly 1,800 miles, following which he won the most prestigious of all the ARS national trophies, the Nicholson Perpetual Challenge Bowl. This award, which has been contested since 1932, calls for an entry of nine separate hybrid tea blooms. His winning entry consisted of ‘Anne Letts’, ‘Chicago Peace’, ‘Golden Splendor’, ‘Isabel de Ortiz’, ‘King’s Ransom’, ‘Lady X’, ‘Miss All American Beauty’, ‘Papa Meilland’ and ‘Red Lion’. And, for good measure, he also won the C. Eugene Pfister Memorial Trophy with a specimen of the grandiflora rose, ‘Montezuma’.

In winning the Nicholson Bowl, Frank became only the fourth exhibitor to that date to win both the premiere spring and fall national trophies, joining the ranks of legendary exhibitors, Harold Weaver, Martin J. Martin and Dr. W. H. Pavey. Since that time, eight other exhibitor teams accomplished this extraordinary feat, making in all an elite dozen.

The year 1970 found Frank on the road again, this time making the 1,200 mile drive to Kansas City, Missouri, for the fall national where he again won the National Pacific Rose Society Challenge Trophy with ‘Crimson Glory’, ‘Pascali’ and ‘Red Lion’. In the spring of 1971, he traveled 1,100 miles to Memphis, Tennessee to win the William H. Mavity Trophy for the first time. This calls for an entry of five floribunda sprays, an additional challenge in packing roses for travel. The winning entry displayed ‘Europeana’, ‘Fashionette’, ‘Ice White’, ‘Ivory Fashion’ and ‘Miracle’. And, in the fall of 1973 Frank drove non-stop over 500 miles to Columbus, Ohio for a repeat win of the Earl of Warwick Urn with an entry of ‘Christian Dior’, ‘First Prize’, ‘Garden Party’, ‘Medallion’, ‘Peace’ and ‘Tropicana’.

In 1975, the ARS fall convention came to New Jersey, held at the resort of Great Gorge, less than 60 miles from Frank’s home. With the competition on his home turf, Frank swept the show, winning the J. Horace McFarland Memorial Award for the third time with an entry of ‘Burnaby’, ‘Carla’, ‘Gruss an Berlin’, ‘High Esteem’, ‘Lemon Sherbet’, ‘Perfume Delight’ and ‘Sunrise-Sunset’. He also won the Earl of Warwick Urn for the third time with ‘Christian Dior’, ‘First Prize’, ‘Garden Party’, ‘Pascali’, ‘Royal Highness’ and ‘Tiffany’. And, for good measure he added his second William H. Mavity Trophy with sprays of the floribundas, ‘Kiskadee’, ‘Orange Sensation’, ‘Orangeade’, ‘Rose Parade’, and ‘Tamango’.

In 1975, Frank was elected vice-president of the American Rose Society, following which he would serve a three-year term as president (1977-79). Having won 12 national trophies and entered the elite of American rose exhibitors, he was beginning to get ready for something new. Still, in 1976 he would win the traveling ARS national Portland “City of Roses” Trophy at a local district convention. And, in 1979 he drove the 700 miles to Indianapolis to again win the National Pacific RS Challenge Trophy with ‘Bobby Charlton’, ‘Embassy’ and ‘Toro’. Finally, wrapping up his career as a top national level exhibitor he again won the 1986 Portland “City of Roses” Trophy at Kingston, NY with ‘Bride’s Dream’, ‘Garden Party’, ‘Madame Violet’, ‘Olympic Torch’ and ‘Peggy Lee’.

Early evidence of Frank’s desire to do something new and challenging with roses can be seen in the varieties of roses in his winning entries. There are the usual warhorses of the day particularly among the AARS winners. But there are also roses that had never been seen before – and sometimes not since – on the show tables. Among the unique roses appearing in Frank’s winning entries were ‘Tradition’, a 1965 red Kordes hybrid tea and ‘White Queen’, a 1958 white hybrid tea by Gene Boerner. There was also ‘Honey Favorite’, a light pink sport of the hybrid tea ‘Pink Favorite’ discovered by Gordon J. Von Abrams in 1962. ‘Golden Splendor’ is a deep yellow hybrid tea introduced by Roy Hennessey in 1960. Frank was also the first and only one to record wins with ‘Gruss an Berlin’, another red hybrid tea introduced by Kordes in 1963, as well as ‘High Esteem’, a pink blend hybrid tea bred by Gordon J. Von Abrams in 1961. Even among the floribunda sprays – which were not his favorite – were the unique roses ‘Ice White’, a 1966 McGredy introduction, ‘Miracle’, an orange-pink floribunda bred by Gysbert Verbeek of the Netherlands in 1962, and ‘Kiskadee’, a yellow McGredy floribunda introduced in 1973. Frank was in fact growing some most unusual roses in his quest for the perfect show rose.

The secret – if you can use the word “secret” here – to Frank’s success as an exhibitor can be summed up with words he delivered to a reporter the year before his death: “To have beautiful roses, you do have to work at it a little,” he said. “They need care, they need grooming. They need you.”

The Hybridizer
In the late 1970s, as his breakneck exhibiting days were coming to a close, Frank was collecting rose hips that he found in public and private gardens. Most amateur hybridizers begin their career by germinating seeds from open pollinated hips – to see what they produce and to learn how to do so prior to making intentional crosses. One such seed produced a winner, a climbing hybrid tea with eggshell white blooms of classic hybrid tea form. Frank named the rose Pelé, ostensibly after his dog, a Dalmatian with markings that reminded him of a soccer ball. (Frank always told this story with a smile and swore it to be true.) Frank entered the rose at the American Rose Center Trial grounds, where it received a 1979 ARC Bronze Certificate. Thereafter, Joe Burks of Co-Operative Rose Growers introduced Pelé in 1979 and it still remains in commerce.

Raising roses out-of-doors in New Jersey, with its short growing season and hard winters, is next to impossible. So in 1980, Frank and June moved from River Vale to Old Tappan, New Jersey. As he explained to John Mattia, who reported the conversation in his article, “Frank Benardella: Earning His Stripes as a Hybridizer” in the 1994 American Rose Annual: “Since June and I were now hooked on growing roses, we purchased this house with the goal of setting up our dream rose garden. Also, there was a horse barn in open sunshine on the property, an ideal location of the lean-to greenhouse. I finally had the greenhouse I needed to get into hybridizing.”

Operating from this 12′ x 32′ lean-to greenhouse attached to his barn, Frank made his first crosses in 1980. Since his main interest was in exhibiting roses, his program from the beginning was to use miniature roses as mother plants and make crosses using pollen from perfectly formed intermediate and small flowered floribunda cut roses. This was done in an effort to bring perfect hybrid tea exhibition form to the miniature. With an exhibitor’s eye – as well as limited space in the small greenhouse – Frank was, as he later confessed, “super-critical of any rose I was growing, including my own creations.” Consequently, as Frank explained to John Mattia: “If a seedling bloom doesn’t offer the promise of form, it is immediately discarded.” Or in Frank’s more pungent words, “ninety-nine percent of it is garbage”.

Frank’s first major success in breeding rose was the near-black miniature, ‘Black Jade’, introduced in 1985. A cross of ‘Sheri Anne’ by ‘Laguna’, an orange-red Kordes cut-flower hybrid tea favored by Frank as a pollen parent, ‘Black Jade’ nearly fell victim to Frank’s critical eye. As related by Sean McCann: “One day as I was visiting Frank’s home in Old Tappan, New Jersey, I noticed an almost-black miniature in his greenhouse. Frank was not going to do anything with it; he felt the blooms were too large for a miniature and too small for a floribunda. I saw it as a completely new rose. My enthusiasm was so great that he went ahead and introduced it as a miniature. And no one has ever complained that the flower is too big.” In 1985, ‘Black Jade’ was awarded the ARS Award of Excellence for miniature roses, the first of Frank’s AOE winners.

Frank’s concern with miniatures that were “too big” also nearly doomed his most successful exhibition miniature, ‘Soroptimist International”. This was a 1985 seedling that Frank also thought too big to be a miniature. The plant was sent to Harm Saville of Nor’East Miniature Roses and after a few years Harm agreed, and the plants were all destroyed. During those years plant material was also sent to Ludwig’s in South Africa and Bell Roses in New Zealand. Ludwig Taschner introduced the rose as a miniature called “Astra”. As soon as Ludwig’s catalog arrived and Frank saw it listed he called Ludwig and said “you can’t call that rose Astra as there is already a mini called Astra that was hybridized by Ben Williams.” The next year’s catalog from Ludwig saw the name changed to “Little Star Rose.”

SI Reading Copyright

‘Soropotimist International’ Franks most successful show rose to date. Photo by Andrew Hearne.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand the Soroptimist International organization was having their 75th international world convention and wanted a rose named for them. They approached Laurie Bell and Laurie asked Frank if he could offer them any of his varieties that were not as yet on the market. Frank agreed, the women walked the test blocks and selected the rose now known as ‘Soroptimist International’. In the U.S., the Soroptimist International women also wanted plants (as did a few exhibitors who by then had discovered the rose). But there were no plants in the U. S, from which to get propagating material. Jack Walter obtained some buds from abroad so he could satisfy the demand for the rose, a process that brought it into U.S. commerce.

Frank Benardella’s close association with Ludwig Taschner dates to the World Rose Convention held in Toronto in 1985 where they made close contact and “talked roses all the way”. Ludwig recalls receiving budding eyes from Frank in 1986. As Ludwig later reported, “A few months later, when they started flowering, I realised that we had some very special varieties amongst them. It did not take us long to experiment with them, growing them in greenhouses for cut flower production. The florists in Pretoria loved these little roses. We planted more and more and exported them – mostly to Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Switzerland. Other growers followed suit and it became a formidable industry.” At its peak, Ludwig was growing more than 50,000 plants of Frank’s 1991 introduction ‘Figurine’, a 1992 AOE winner that produced classically-formed 2-inch blooms on 9-inch stems. Frank told me that royalties from the sales of ‘Figurine’ for the cut flower trade were multiples of the royalties produced in the U.S. for all of his exhibition roses combined.

In addition to receiving rose budwood from Frank, Ludwig exported plants of exhibition varieties to Frank for use in his breeding. As explained by Ludwig, “That is how ‘Rina Hugo’, Helen Naudé’, ‘Bles Bridges’, ‘Lynette’, ‘Esther Geldenhuys’, ‘Andrea Stelzer’ and others became popular in the USA.”

Additional success would come to Frank in the cut flower trade, this by happenstance. Seeking to develop a striped miniature rose with good form, Frank had used Ralph Moore’s 1976 red and white striped miniature, ‘Stars ‘n’ Stripes’ to produce the miniature rose, ‘Imbroglio’ in 1990. Thereafter, he decided to put the pollen of ‘Imbroglio’ on his favorite breeding rose, the florist hybrid tea ‘Laguna’. Usually a cross of a miniature rose and a hybrid tea results in a miniature rose because of the dominance of its genes. However, in this case the result was a large rose, a deep pink hybrid tea with light stripes that was awarded an ARC Silver Certificate in 1992. The rose was later named ‘Tinseltown’ and introduced successfully to the cut flower trade. Continuing along this line, Frank used the pollen of ‘Tinseltown’ on the well-formed Kordes floribunda ‘Lorena’, another florist rose, to produce his best known and most successful florist rose, ‘Zebra’, a red and cream striped hybrid tea that was featured by the Dutch Floral Council in 1993.

At the same time, ‘Tinseltown’ was also to be the pollen parent of one of Frank’s greatest exhibition miniatures, as well as his favorite pollen parent in years to come. This was ‘Kristin’, produced from the seed parent ‘Buttons’, an orange-red miniature bred by U.K. breeder Patrick Dickson in 1986. ‘Kristin’ presents true miniature red and white blooms with a very-tight needle-nose, high-pointed center, surrounded by tight petals that need to be pried open by exhibitors and do not otherwise open on their own. Introduced in 1993, it was an AOE winner for that year and has gone on to challenge ‘Soroptimist International’ as Frank’s best show rose. More importantly, it can be found in the breeding of several of Frank’s best show roses since that day, always as a pollen parent. I recall Frank telling me with conviction in 1997 that ‘Kristin’ “marks for form as a pollen parent.” Other breeders will tell you it makes no difference whether a rose is used as a pollen or seed parent, but Frank was convinced it was best for pollen and in any event, ‘Kristin’ makes for a poor seed parent since it is hard to get to its stigma and its hips seldom have more than one seed.

just part of the huge growing 'Climbing Kristin' the sport of the miniature 'Kristin'.  Photo by Andrew Hearne

Just part of the huge growing ‘Climbing Kristin’ the sport of the miniature ‘Kristin’. Photo by Andrew Hearne.

Frank’s success in the cut flower industry lead to his retirement in 1993 from Goody Products, where he had become a Senior Vice-President for international sales and marketing. Later in the 1990s, Frank moved to Central New Jersey where he erected a 50′ x 50′ greenhouse to continue his hybridizing. There, Frank continued to produce about 15,000 seedlings a year in his continual quest to produce exhibition-form miniature roses, a quest that would produce ten more AOE winners in the 2000s.

However, by 1999 a new wind was blowing in miniature roses. At the 1999 Spring National Convention in Nashville, the ARS Board approved a proposal championed by Maryland hybridizer Ben Williams to add the class of “miniflora” to the list of ARS approved horticultural classifications. The purpose of the addition was to accommodate those roses that were thought to be too big to be classified as a miniature rose, and too small to be classified as a floribunda.

Frank, who had thought both ‘Black Jade’ and ‘Soroptimist International’ were “too big”, was opposed to the idea. His reasoning was that the roses championed by Ben Williams “were really very good floribundas when budded onto an understock or allowed to develop into a real strong plant on their own roots three years down the road.” But as the class began to develop into larger-sized miniatures with classic hybrid-tea exhibition form, Frank warmed to the idea. Later, Sean McCann reported that Frank had told him in 2001, “I wish you could see the bloom on some of the larger miniatures in the greenhouse now that will fit in the miniflora class. The blooms are absolutely perfect exhibition style. I am really excited about them. And to think that the last five years I have been trying to breed everything smaller. How wrong was I?”

In 2003, Frank released his first miniflora, ‘Liberty Bell’ as the convention rose for the 2003 ARS fall national in Philadelphia. Then in 2007-08, he introduced eight minifloras, including the AOE winners ‘Dejá Blu’, ‘Power Point’ and ‘Show Stopper’. More were no doubt on the way, along with the true miniatures for which he has always been known. A survey of the breeding and dates of introduction of his best-known roses is contained in Figure 1, a remarkable list of roses.*

'Liberty Bell' miniflora. photo by Andrew Hearne

‘Liberty Bell’ miniflora. Photo by Andrew Hearne.

For those wondering on the name of Frank’s roses, Frank once told me: “I have only registered one rose in my lifetime, that being ‘Pelé’. All of my other roses were registered by the introducers.” And, although Frank was often consulted on the name, and in some cases suggested one, the introducer gave most of the names.

One name that Frank did usually provide was the code name, the name by which the rose was known to him in the greenhouse. A code name is created by using the three-letter hybridizer code, which in Frank’s case was “Ben” with another set of letters, intended to make a pronounceable name by which the rose can be known throughout the world. At first, the names were unremarkable, as witness “Benblack” (‘Black Jade’), “Benjen” (‘Jennifer’) or “Benfig” (‘Figurine’). Later, however, Frank adopted a system whereby he would make code names based upon a common theme. One year, his granddaughter was taking Spanish and so with her assistance he numbered his seedlings in Spanish, e.g. “Benuno”, (’Leading Lady’), “Benocho” (‘Double Take’) and “Bennovecientos”, (‘Power Point’). Another year, he made names based upon NFL football teams, e.g. “Benjets” (‘Magic Show’). Looking at “Benjets” in a test garden at Rose Hills, I commented to Frank that it appeared he had named his best rose after his favorite team, the New York Jets, and I asked if he had named one after the Cleveland Browns, of which I am lifetime fan. He said yes to both, though it looks at this writing that “Benbrowns” is likely to be as unsuccessful as its namesake.

Frank Benardella’s Show Roses
Frank Benardella’s quest to bring perfect hybrid tea exhibition form to the miniature rose has been well received on the American show tables. In Figure 1, I tabulate the show results of his miniatures and minifloras through the 2009 show season. The points are based on the point system I have long used for royalty, with six points for a queen, five for king, four for princess and three for roses on the courts or in principal district and national challenge classes. As can be seen, 35 of Frank’s creations have been awarded points, of which 24 have won a queen of show. In all, his roses have won 339 queens of show, led by the two great show roses, ‘Soroptimist International’ and ‘Kristin’ with 114 and 68 respectively. They are followed by ‘Hilde’, another large miniature that would probably be introduced as a miniflora today, the shapely ‘Jilly Jewel’ and ‘Black Jade’, the one Frank had to be talked into introducing. His leading miniflora is ‘Solar Flair’, introduced in 2005 and with limited distribution, but nevertheless accounting already for 19 queens of show. (As an aside the spelling of the term “Flair” was intentional since Frank had discovered another rose introduced as “Solar Flare”.) It is followed by ‘Leading Lady’ with 10 queens.

'Hilde' Miniature Queen of Show shown by Andrew Hearne at the 2009 Arlington Rose Foundation Rose Show.  Photo by Andrew Hearne

‘Hilde’ Miniature Queen of Show shown by Andrew Hearne at the 2009 Arlington Rose Foundation Rose Show. Photo by Andrew Hearne.

It is early to say, but it appears probable from the reports of exhibitors that Frank’s last roses will be his best show roses. The remarkable miniflora ‘Show Stopper’, introduced in 2008 has gathered eight queens in its first full season. The basket of ‘Sunswept’ shown by Tommy Cairns & Luis Desamero at Vancouver in 2009 was the talk of the show. And the very best is likely to be his last, the 2010 AOE winner, ‘Magic Show’. It is appropriately, a true miniature rose with exquisite hybrid tea form, bred from a cross of ‘Perfection’ and ‘Timeless’, two words descriptive of Frank’s miniature roses.

The Pinnacle of Frank’s Success?
The success of Frank’s quest for outstanding show roses, both on the show table and in his hybridizing, can be measured by some numbers. His 17 national trophies ranks him at No. 7 all time, which is remarkable considering the short New Jersey growing season, the limited number of years that he was active, and the smaller number of national trophies available for competition in those years. His16 ARC trial ground certificates are second only to Joe Winchel while his 16 AOE winners rank him with the likes of Ralph Moore and Harm Saville. He was also the winner of the first two Rose Hybridizers Association National Trophies, the first at Philadelphia in 2002 with an unnamed cross of ‘Jilly Jewel’ x ‘Kristin’, and the second at Washington, DC 2003 with a seedling cross of ‘Laguna’ x ‘Kristin’.

'Pinnacle' the beautiful hybrid tea form floribunda hybridized by Frank.  Photo by Stacey Catron

‘Pinnacle’ the beautiful hybrid tea form floribunda hybridized by Frank. Photo by Stacey Catron.

The latter rose has since been introduced by Certified Roses under the name, ‘Pinnacle’. Registered as a floribunda, the deep red and white blend blooms have consistently perfect hybrid tea form and come in abundance on straight-arrow stems. It is quite simply, one of the very best one-bloom-per-stem show floribunda, having recorded 29 winning entries nationally since its introduction.

It is tempting, because of the name, to declare ‘Pinnacle’ as the peak, the highest or culminating point, of Frank Benardella’s success as a show rose man. But knowing Frank, he probably thought it was too big to be a miniflora and fell short of his expectations. But that’s because the secret to Frank’s success was that he was never fully satisfied with his show roses or his breeding. As he explained to author Aurelia Scott, interviewing him for the book “Otherwise Normal People”: “You wish your life away when you’re hybridizing. First, you’re planning in your mind the crosses you want to make for the year. You do those crosses, gather the seed, then wait until the next year for them to germinate. You can’t wait for the first bloom. Then you throw most of them away. You never get the look you are trying to achieve. Not quite. But you are always searching.”

Frank spent a lifetime searching among roses for that perfect show rose. He didn’t find it. Instead, he found friends throughout the world, a purpose and enormous beauty. At the same time, he brought us friendship, hours of pleasant conversation and beautiful show roses. Those of us who have known him are privileged to say that we knew The Show Rose Man.

*The tables are not included in this article as 3 years have passed. 

Due to the recent proposal for the Frank Benardella National Trophy, Robert B. Martin Jr. allowed us the use this article that was originally featured in the 2010 Rose Exhibitors Quarterly. This is a fantastic article written by Bob and we appreciate his contributions to out blog.  Andrew


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