rosesolutions logo

More About Brownell Roses
by Mike Chute

When Walter Brownell began his research on roses over one hundred years ago, the lifespan of a hybrid tea, due to cold winters and disease, averaged two years. He was a young attorney in Providence, Rhode Island, and he and his wife Josephine had a summer place in the Sakonnet section of Little Compton, Rhode Island, a sleepy seaside town along the southern coast of Rhode Island. Here they planted roses which bloomed nicely in early spring, became infected with blackspot and other fungal diseases in late summer, and promptly died the following winter. This intrigued him to the point that he began experimenting with rose genetics to see if there were better, more disease resistant, more winter hardy roses to be had than the European-style varieties that were then available.

This was the beginning of what would be a second career for the Brownells that would span half a century and include their sons and later their grandchildren. They went on to introduce over fifty varieties of hybrid teas, climbers, creepers, and everblooming pillars that they called "Sub Zero" roses. In their heyday, during the 1940's, 50's and 60's, they shipped roses that were hybridized and propagated in Little Compton, and later East Providence, across the entire United States. (They stored bare root roses for the winter in abandoned WWII artillery bunkers along the Rhode Island shore which have since been razed.)

The Brownells -- Walter Brownell always insisted on being referred to as "The Brownells"-- had three main hybridizing objectives. By applying Gregor Mendel's still novel principles of heredity, they sought to produce a rich yellow in climbing and creeping roses, create hybrid teas that would survive through northern New England and mid-western winters, and develop recurrent bloom on climbing roses. His record would show that he succeeded in all three.

When the Victorian Rose Garden in Roger Williams Park in Providence was restored in 1998, a collection of vintage Brownell varieties was established. Many of these varieties, long out of commerce, are considered rare and were donated from private gardens and collections. Pesticides are not employed in this public rose garden -- 80 varieties totaling 504 roses -- and it's easy to see which varieties are thriving and which are struggling. The Brownell collection more than holds its own.

Brownell’s genius is best expressed in his array of splendid climbers. He succeeded in breeding climbers and pillars with vigor, hardiness, and ultimately with recurrent hybrid tea-like blooms. I remember going to the Brownell Rose Nursery with my parents in the late 1950's where my father bought roses and planted them at home. One of those roses, RHODE ISLAND RED - an everblooming pillar - still grows in my mother's garden.

The Brownells’ achievements were widely recognized. In 1933, they were awarded the Jackson Dawson Memorial Award from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. The Garden Club of America, in 1954, presented Walter Brownell the Jane Richter Rose Medal and in 1955 he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Rhode Island - hence the title of “Doctor” Brownell as he sometimes is known today. He passed away in April, 1957.

Brownell successfully produced roses with a distinctly American character to satisfy the unmet needs of the colder regions of the United States. This superb horticultural achievement, on the whole, has stood the test of time. Many of these varieties, especially the everblooming pillars, deserve to be rediscovered and, for this reason, we began propagating several varieties from our private collection. Check out the Brownell Page for more information regarding the availability of these vintage Brownells.