Dr. Felicitas Svejda 1920-2016

Dr Felicitas Svejda, the Mother of Canadian Roses

By Bernadette Vangool

"In the fall of 1961 I was asked by Agriculture Canada, now Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (AAFC), to look into the possibility of developing winterhardy and everblooming roses. At that time we were not sure this could be done because repeated flowering depends on continued growth, but winter survival depends on cessation of growth. I knew nothing about roses. This was a blessing because I had no preconceived notion. I had to learn. The easiest way to learn was by observation. At the experimental Farm in Ottawa we had an old rose plantation which received minimum care. This was ideal because these roses must have been hardy to have survived many winters without cover. There was also a garden of tender roses which flowered repeatedly but I was not interested in them because they needed protection." - Felicitas Svejda -from "The Canadian Explorer Roses." A new era of rose breeding at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa had begun.

William Saunders, the first director of the Ornamental Plant Division (1886), worked with roses and developed 'Agnes', a yellow rose still found in collector's gardens today.

Isabella Preston continued the ornamental plant breeding program between 1920 and 1946. She developed many new hybrids of lilacs, lilies, peonies and crabapples as well as some 20 hardy roses.

The rose program was resurrected in 1961 when Dr Felicitas Svejda transferred to the Ornamental Plant Division. Born on November 8, 1920 in Vienna, she was an only child who devoted much time to her studies and received a Phd in Agricultural Science from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna in 1948. She remained with the University until 1951, working as a research assistant. She then moved to the Swedish Seed Association plant station in Svalof to further her education in cereal seed selection and production.

In 1953 she came to Canada in the hope of furthering her career in cereal crop development. Frustrated with her work as a statistician for the cereal crop division, and seeing few prospects in that department, she made the move to the Ornamental Plant Division.

Felicitas began studying the roses at the Farm, concentrating on the Rugosa types which bloomed repeatedly and did not require any winter protection. Seedlings produced from open pollination of 'Schneezwerg', showed promise of both good form and bloom characteristics. They were also relatively disease resistant. Further tests led to the introduction of several rugosa cultivars. 'Martin Frobisher' was the first to be introduced, in 1968, followed by 'Jens Munk', 'Henry Hudson' and 'David Thompson'. This sparked the beginning of the Explorer Series of Roses, roses exemplifying the tough character of their namesake explorers.

During her first three years of the rose program, Felicitas received seedlings from R. kordesii Wulff through her colleague D.F. Cameron, as well as seedlings sent by Robert Simonet from Edmonton Alberta. The Robert Simonet seedlings were fully hardy in Ottawa, but the R. kordesii seedlings were kept in the greenhouse over-winter. R. kordesii was to prove an excellent seed parent and would produce viable seed from a wide variety of pollen donors. Many of the roses developed at the Central Experimental Farm, and later at L'Assomption in Quebec, had R. kordesii and the Simonet hybrids somewhere in their parentage.

The roses were grown on their own roots. Newly germinated seedlings were planted out in the field and irrigated the first summer. After that, it was survival of the fittest.

During her tenure, the rose program flourished. She introduced 13 new cultivars before her retirement in 1985. Among them were the famous pillar roses ‘John Cabot’ and ‘John Davis’.

The roses later released from L'Assomption were seedlings trialed and tested in Ottawa and grown on in Quebec. Of these, 'Frontenac', 'Simon Fraser' and 'George Vancouver' have proven fully hardy on the prairies.

Felicitas lived for her work, was very dedicated and kept meticulous records. She documented her progress in articles and reports, many of which were donated to the Montreal Botanical Garden after her retirement.

In 2008, the bimonthly journal, National-Roses-Canada published 'The Canadian Explorer Roses', by Felicitas Svejda, a collection of previously written articles and a must read for those interested in rose breeding.

The 'Mother of the Canadian Explorer Roses' died on January 19, 2016 at age 95. Her roses, her sole descendants, will provide us with a continuing living legacy.