In the horticultural world, Roderick Woods has become famous for his Hibiscus syriacus (rose of Sharon) breeding. But in his previous life, Woods was a world-renowned physiologist, scholar and researcher at Cambridge University in England. His path to plant breeder was both unexpected and slow. But fortunately for plant lovers, it has delivered several of the most exciting new plants ever developed—plants with superior vigor that thrive in both warm and cool climates, and plants with large, unique new flower forms.
Born in England during a time of war and growing up during post-war austerity, rather isolated in the country, Woods’ amusements centered on plants and animals. His family had a large vegetable and flower garden that provided the cash for extras like holidays. He was therefore drafted early into stone picking, pricking out seedlings and weeding. After school he wanted to go into forestry, but after a spell in a Salk vaccine tissue culture laboratory he was sent off, somewhat reluctantly, to train as a medical doctor. It was soon noted he had an aptitude for microscopy and interpreting structures, so he was diverted into research after his undergraduate degree. Woods earned his living for 32 years thereafter by teaching physiology and histology to medical and veterinary students.
In research he worked on nervous system structure with light and electron microscopes, the foetal development of the lungs and other topics in Oxford, Edinburgh and Cambridge. He then drifted into whole body human physiology and particularly temperature regulation. These studies lead him into the esoteric field of accident and injury research and into the field of protective clothing. Most every fire fighter, motorcyclist, horse rider, police in riot situations, chain saw user, abattoir worker, fencer, and any other person that works in a dangerous profession, is safer today because of Woods’ innovations.
A serendipitous find
In 2002 Woods retired from teaching and research and moved to Norfolk to concentrate on Hibiscus breeding and running a protective clothing consultancy company, aptly named Blue Hibiscus Limited.
As a young child Woods had three Hibiscus syriacus plants in the family garden; red, white and blue. They grew slowly but were always appreciated when they flowered in the summer after almost everything else had finished. In 1974, Woods planted his first hibiscus plants in his garden near Cambridge. They never performed like the ones he saw on holiday in France and Italy—growth was slow and the flowers did not open well. The English climate was just not warm enough or sunny enough. This spurred him on to start collecting other selections on his travels.
It was in 1981, on his journey to plant breeder, that Woods had a life changing experience. He was in the south of France and happened upon an unusual pink hibiscus growing in a roadside hedge, and it appeared to glow. Captivated by this vision, he decided he must have this variety for his own garden. So upon returning home to the U.K., Woods began searching at local nurseries only to be told that no such variety existed. This led him to seek out and write various hibiscus collectors all around the world, but again Woods had no luck. Returning to France in the following years, Woods searched for this glowing pink hibiscus, but unfortunately the road had been widened and the plant was gone. He searched the local French nurseries and talked to anyone in the area that was growing hibiscus but again, no luck.
In 1988, he discovered a group of pink-flowered rose of Sharon that had grown in a near-wild state in some old gardens, farmyards and around churches in one area of the Pyrenees foothills. Woods reasoned that bees must have been at work and, that if he wanted the true, pure-pink hibiscus, he was going to have to be a super-bee. With permission from the locals, Woods collected seedlings. The resultant plants were the beginning of Woods new obsession; hibiscus breeding.
Breeding in earnest
Initially, Woods’ breeding came with mixed success. He was not able to replicate the clear, glowing pink flowers he had seen in France, but he had discovered that his wild Pyrenees plants resulted in exceptional plant vigor and branching that he never seen before.
Most Hibiscus syriacus breeding has its origins in very warm climates such as France. Many of the common cultivars in the U.S. were developed at the National Arboretum outside of Washington, D.C. While most of these plants grow well in the South, they just don’t grow or flower as well in cooler, northern climates. They certainly did not flower well in his Cambridge garden.
Woods, like most others that love rose of Sharon, was fascinated with the cultivar ‘Blue Bird.’ Few can resist blue flowers, but ‘Blue Bird’ is a strange bird—weak growing, poorly branched, course and short flowering. Woods wanted to develop a strong growing blue-flowered plant with an abundance of blooms. Over the years, Woods redirected the scientific skills that had made him famous in human physiology to breeding plants. His breeding gave rise to very pure colors across the spectrum and plants with unusually strong flowing and growth.
Woods is most famous for his Chiffon series of hibiscus with exceptional flowering plants noted for their large, flat, single blooms with a lacy center. Until you grow these plants, you cannot believe how unique they are in how they grow. While most rose of Sharon are rigid and uptight, the Chiffons are finer in texture and more shrub-like with lots of basal stems which produce an abundance of flowers.
The origins of the Chiffon series date back to 1986 when Dr. Tachibana at the Osaka Botanic Gardens sent Woods some seed in response to a correspondence they had concerning the mythical pink hibiscus. The resulting seedlings were not pink, but contained the doubling genes that have gone on to produce Lavender Chiffon, White Chiffon and, three generations later, Blue Chiffon.
It has taken Woods a long time to fully understand flower color and flower form inheritance in hibiscus. It was considerably more complex than he imagined when he started out.
Editor’s note: This first appeared in Tim Woods’ blog, The Plant Hunter. Since this first published, Woods has introduced Pink Chiffon, the latest addition to the Chiffon series. The series is available from Proven Winners ColorChoice. Pink Chiffon will appear on the shelves of garden centers in 2013.