Monday, May 27, 2013

Lillian Gibson Revival

All right, I can't stand keeping the secret any longer.  ProfessorRoush has a blooming 'Lillian Gibson'.  Yes, I do. I first heard about 'Lillian Gibson' in a post on GardenWeb in the early Summer of 2011, and I learned more about her in this earlier 2009 post from none other than Suzy Verrier, author of Rosa Gallica and Rosa Rugosa.   When Suzy Verrier recommends a rose as "the best climbing rose for harsh climates," I sit up and listen.

'Lillian Gibson'
It seems that 'Lillian Gibson', a Hybrid Blanda introduced in 1938 by Neils Hansen, had fallen from favor and commerce.  At one time, she was, according to Hansen himself  "the sensation at the Sioux Falls Flower Show, June, 1938."  Ms. Verrier initiated a forum post because she had persuaded Bailey Nurseries to offer it again and was alerting others to ask for it so that a minimum offering could be generated.  As the forum thread developed and others searched for it and lamented being unable to find 'Lillian Gibson', one of the most delicious comments I've ever seen on the web was posted near the end of that thread; "The masses of today aren't going to go after great-grandma in flannel PJs when they can have a bimbo in a bikini with silicone, even if it is all just in the power of suggestion."  Wow, modern horticulture summed up in a single sentence.

As it turns out, Bailey Nurseries likely did create some 'Lillian Gibson' plants that year, but they didn't sell well and the remains ended up as "bagged" roses at Home Depot in 2011, where I snagged two of them.  One of those decrepit bagged roses lived, with the result that I now have a 4 foot tall sprawling rose antique in my garden.

'Lillian Gibson', 2 years old and early in bloom
'Lillian Gibson' is a pink double rose that will grow to 5-10' tall at maturity, a tall shrub or a short climber.  In her second year, she is about 3 foot tall and 6 feet around for me.  This cross of  Rosa Blanda 'Aiton' X Red Star (hybrid tea) was an attempt by Hansen to create a line of thornless roses on the prairie.  There seems to be a little confusion about the actual rose, however, for some proclaim it's strong fragrance and others state that it has little or no fragrance.  I'm in the middle, allowing that she has some fragrance but it isn't overwhelming.  Walter Schowalter believed that there are two different 'Lillian Gibson' being grown, both of which were tall shrubs, hardy, once-blooming, with red winter canes, and without hips.  One, the true 'Lillian Gibson', has a few prickles and the flowers are shell pink.  The other, which Showalter dubbed 'Lillian Gibson Sibling' was completely thornless, a deeper rose color, and not as full.  I believe I've got the true one by this description as mine does have a few prickles and is a beautiful clear pink.  Hansen himself described 'Lillian Gibson' in the 1940 American Rose Annual as "the flowers are large, double, with over forty petals of a beautiful lively rose-pink, about three inches across, and with delightful rich fragrance. The plant, of strong, upright, sturdy growth, is a very abundant bloomer in late June; sparsely thorny on young shoots, with scattered thorns on the old shoots." 

Niels Ebbesen Hansen, whose nickname was the "Burbank of the Plains," was the first head of the horticulture department at South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts and served from 1895 until 1937.  He was an intrepid plant explorer and introduced hundreds of varieties of alfalfa, forage grasses, fruits, and roses bred to thrive in the cold, arid conditions of the northern plains.  There is a picture of him here at this site.   Somewhere along the line, most of his rose introductions have been lost, but others live on in the genes of hardy Griffith Buck and Canadian Roses. The losses of those roses are sad for rose lovers on the Plains, but I can understand it if 'Lillian Gibson's sole claim to fame was as the "sensation of the 1938 Sioux Falls Flower Show."  That's sort of like being the Squash Queen in Hog Heaven Falls, Oklahoma.  Thankfully, however, dedicated rosarians like Suzy Verrier keep singing her praises and some remnants of 'Lillian Gibson' will always survive in obscure gardens like mine.  The photo of the full bush above and to the left is today's picture, with only the central bud in each cluster blooming.  I'll update this blog in a few days with a picture of her full bloom.

Update: 06/02/13.  On this date, almost two weeks after she started blooming, I'll declare the bloom cycle of 'Lillian Gibson' at peak; feast your eyes!  Can you say "Wow"!


  1. So glad you wrote about this obscure rose, for which I've been hungering for information. I got a tiny "liner" plant this spring (from Suzy Verrier's nursery) that is growing vigorously in a pot. But it won't bloom for a year, at least, & I wonder if it belongs with climbers or other shrub roses. Will eagerly await your updates on this plant!

    1. Pleased to be of service. Tomorrow, if I remember, I'll send you a file you might enjoy. It's a PDF biography of Hansen, written by his widow. Good info. I think I've also got a couple of Rose Annual reprints that mention Lillian Gibson.

  2. I printed this post to show my friend Lillian Gibson the rose with her name.

    Lillian Lane and her twin, Linnie, were 10 years old when Lillian Gibson rose was the sensation of the Sioux Falls Flower Show. Lillian will be amused to know there is a rose with her name. We'll opine that 'Lillian Gibson Sibling' is really 'Linnie Gibson.' Lillian and Linnie married Gibson brothers. They are retired schoolteachers in Southwest Georgia.

  3. I think its just lovely that the history of this obscure climber rose will not be lost...

    1. It is a special rose; I can't believe the display right now.

  4. Wow, How marvelous. I am wondering if you've made some starts from this wonderful rose? I'm endeavoring to put together both a garden of N. E. Hansen introductions as well as an orchard. I would love to be able to get one of these roses.


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