Robert Simonet 1903 - 1989

Robert Simonet an important contributor to Canadian Roses

By Bernadette Vangool

The great advances in rose breeding would not have been possible without the generous sharing of experience and plant material of early enthusiasts. One of those plant breeders was Edmonton's Robert Simonet, whose rose seedlings were instrumental in the developmentĀ  of the majority of tetraploid Explorer Roses at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

Fred Fellner, a lily breeder and grower recalls this generosity. When he was starting out, after a two year correspondence with Robert Simonet, he finally got to meet him and came away with a dozen Asiatic lily seedling, as well as a dozen trumpet lilies. Simonet who was planning to plow under the field of lilies in the fall, allowed him to mark other lilies he was interested in, and in the fall Simonet arrived at Fred's farm with seventy five additional lily bulbs.

Robert Simonet was born near Paris in 1903 and spent his formative years with his grandmother in Vimpelles a village one hour south of Paris. His mother was widowed and worked in a tobacco store in Paris. His grandmother was an avid gardener and we can imagine that young Robert most likely had his own garden plot to tend to.

In 1919 Robert's sister was coming to Edmonton to marry a Canadian soldier, Robert 16 at the time accompanied her on this great adventure. His first job in Edmonton was working for Peter Juchli a market garden specialist. In winter he worked as a steam engineer at the Miseracordia Hospital, while also advancing his education in plant genetics using the Edmonton public library and the University of Alberta library. After a few years he stared to rent land around 83rd Avenue and became a vegetable gardener.

In 1929 he married Lillian Herard and soon after the couple acquired five acres of land in King Edward Park. His market garden produced vegetables, gladioli, cut-flowers and bedding plants which he sold at the Edmonton Market. Although the couple did not have children of their own, nieces and nephews soon joined in the endeavour and the market garden became a real family concern. Madame Simonet eventually joined her children from Paris and was a real hit at the Market with the high society ladies who loved to practice their French and liked to talk haute couture, or high Paris fashion.

In 1949 after careful crossbreeding of petunias, Robert was successful in developing 100 per cent double petunias the first person to do so in North America. Previously the technique for producing 100 per cent doubles was a secret of Japanese plant breeders,. Soon the seed production and distribution business expanded and he stopped attending the Market.

Besides his interest in flowers, especially lilies, Simonet worked with rhubarb, strawberries, turnips and Simonet corn is still available today. Simonet's plant introductions included: double petunias, double hollyhocks, Simonet's buff gladiolus, Alta-sweet turnips, Simonet apple and Alberta apple. His lily cultivars include Lily Simonet, Summer Night and Black Butterfly, which won the North American Lily Society Award of Merit in 1966. His roses include: Double Red Simonet, Dr F.L. Skinner, Pink Masquerade, Red Dawn and Red Dawn x Suzanne.

Robert Simonet won the Stevenson Memorial Gold Medal in 1960 and was inducted in the Alberta Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1984.

Robert Simonet left us in 1989 but his legacy continues in the roses we love such as John Davis, John Cabot, Alexander McKenzie, Champlain, Frontenac and many others. Of these John Davis is my personal favourite. It has a somewhat sprawling habit but always delights with a blanket of the most beautiful pink blooms. When deadheaded it will continue to bloom till freeze up but not as abundantly as the first flush of colour at the end of June or early July.