It seems as though there’s no limit to what celebrities are willing to slap their name on, from skin care to fast food to ape-based NFTs. But as the world slowly creeps toward the inevitable celebrity-collab saturation point, there’s one area of brand synergy that remains reserved for just a handful of stars: roses.
Icons like Barbra Streisand, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Child, and a whole slew of former presidents and first ladies have all had their names permanently assigned to a particular variety of flower. Streisand’s is a hardy breed of dusty pink rose with a strong fragrance, while Child’s is a rich, butter yellow floribunda varietal, and Monroe’s was posthumously given a “platinum blond” bloom with “long lines” and a “beautiful form,” naturally. You may have even seen a number of these roses before on social media, as their creator, Tom Carruth, now the curator of the rose collection at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, has become something of a TikTok sensation in recent months thanks to his viral stories about helping stars create the roses of their dreams.
Before his role at the Huntington, Carruth worked for years breeding roses and hybridizing new varieties, and in the process “ended up [creating] a fair amount of celebrity roses, not by desire, just by the way it went.” The curator explains to Vanity Fair that “creating the variety itself is a 10-year process, from the point of making the cross to the point of final introduction, and you don’t really go about the naming portion of that until more towards year five or six. So, generally, we would approach the celebrity and say, ‘We’d like to name this in your honor, would you give us permission?’ And that’s pretty much all that happens.”
New roses are often named in honor of a famous person who has recently died, but Carruth explains that it also has everything to do with marketing. Given that the moniker plays a big role in sales, he says, “getting a name that’s popular that people know was more to our advantage.” He adds, “You can kill a great rose with a bad name.” That was what happened at Jackson & Perkins, Carruth’s former employer, when the nursery introduced a rose as ‘Jadis,’ Carruth says. “It’s foreign nostalgia, but in the United States, no one knew what that meant. No one knew quite how to say it or spell it, and then they’d go into the nursery and they wouldn’t call for it because they couldn’t figure out what it was called. So they did something that’s not real kosher, they renamed the variety towards the end of its life to ‘Fragrant Memory,’ and sales tripled.” Carruth also notes that one’s legacy doesn’t guarantee petal popularity. “A great name can carry a mediocre rose—John F. Kennedy is one of those. Great name, mediocre rose,” he says.
Typically, Weeks Roses, the company Carruth worked for as a hybridizer prior to assuming his role at the Huntington, would reach out to attain the rights to celebrity names, like Monroe, he recalls. But, in other cases, the star initiated the process. Carruth says that Neil Diamond, Dale Chihuly, and Streisand reached out first, all looking to create a signature rose. “Everybody has their own likes and dislikes,” he said of finding a good floral fit for his A-list clients. “I always start out the conversation with, ‘What is your favorite color?’ When Chihuly said, ‘teal,’ I thought, Oh, my god, we’re going to be in trouble. There are no blues in roses. But he got a rose that almost exactly matched a glasswork piece of his from 2002, and it’s a very changeable rose—it’s striped and it blushes different colors. So, it’s a good representation of Chihuly, actually.”
Other notable collaborators were even pickier when it came to crafting the rose that would one day bear their name. “Barbra Streisand was very involved,” Carruth said. “She took a good two to three seasons to make up her mind. We gave her four different, unnamed varieties, and she finally decided on which one would bear her name, and when she did, she was a great supporter of it. She probably commercialized it more than any other celebrities have done with their rose.” Streisand wanted to be able to grow it herself for a few seasons before she would sign off on the final product, Carruth says. But once she did, the music legend became the rose’s biggest fan, putting it on the cover of her album Timeless, having bouquets flown in for her concerts, and personally has over 100 bushes planted around her property so that her home will always be filled with flowers.
The horticulturist confessed that Julie Newmar was also surprising to work with, as the actor took matters into her own hands in order to secure a flower named in her honor. “This was a seedling of mine that our customer—a string of garden centers here in Southern California—had purchased outright. They were doing that once a year to have their own special rose. They decided to do a ‘name that rose’ contest in their garden centers, and Julie Newmar presented herself for the name. She’s an avid gardener and she loves her rose. She had a gown actually made to the same colors as the rose, so she was a lot of fun,” Carruth explains.
He also imagines that Julia Child also “would’ve been very involved” in the selection of her rose had it not been “towards the latter part of her life.” Mostly, he says it’s celebrities who are gardeners themselves and truly enjoy the rose who would reach out about creating their own variety.
But just because a famous person might seem like they’d be the perfect match with a new rose doesn’t mean that it always works out that way. “We did try and approach Martha Stewart, before her prison time, to name a rose for her, and she refused the variety. She didn’t like the color. It was a national award winner and it became the rose ‘Scentimental,’ which is a red and white stripe and happened to be my first national winner,” Carruth says. Other times, he’s had to turn down requests due both to specificity and the timeline involved in producing those results. “Let’s say they had to have a fragrant red hybrid tea. Well, fragrant red hybrid teas don’t come along that often,” he explained. “So, then we’re talking about many years of waiting. And, generally, when people want to do this, they’d like to do it now not realizing it takes us two years to even grow the crop.”
Carruth has since retired from the hybridizing game, but because it can take up to 10 years to bring a new product to fruition, he says he still has seedlings that will be coming forward, until about 2024. These days, the curator, along with two other staff members and a whole lot of “very important” volunteers, is tasked with overseeing the Huntington rose garden’s three acres and about 2,500 plants. His responsibility is to “keep the collection vibrant and deep, help people learn to interpret the collection properly, and mostly to spread the love of the rose.”
For those looking to start their own garden, Carruth advises to “first take advantage of your local public rose garden, to just observe them, and then contact a member of the American Rose Society, which is based in Shreveport, Louisiana. They have a whole network of avid hobbyists who are knowledgeable rose people throughout the United States and they provide a service called the ‘consulting rosarian.’ If you call them and tell them, ‘I live in this area and I’d like to learn more about growing roses,’ they would put one of their consulting rosarians in touch with you and it’s a free service.”
He also suggests that aspiring gardeners not be put off by the rose’s bad reputation. “Yes, normally they’re thought of as fussy queens in the garden that require a lot of care,” he admits. But now, “there are better selections that are more naturally disease-resistant and less problematic.” That said, he adds that even for a professional like himself, “Gardening is always a challenge because you’re dealing with a living thing. You’re never going to know it all. And the moment you think you do, Mother Nature’s about to teach you a lesson.”
The post Meet the Man Breeding Custom Roses for Celebrity Clients appeared first on Vanity Fair.