When Milwaukee native William Radler was a boy in the late 1940s, he was expected to be seen and not heard. That gave the youngster little to do when visiting grandparents other than page through their rose catalogues, marvel at the colorful photos and hope someday he could grow something equally as beautiful.
Radler’s interest in roses became his obsession and an avocation that eventually blossomed into a vocation. The Garden Club of America has awarded Radler, now 68 and a resident of Greenfield, its prestigious Jane Righter Rose Medal honoring a lifetime of outstanding achievement in rose culture.
The honor, bestowed April 30 at the Garden Club’s conference in Indianapolis, was another in a series of awards for Radler that began with the Knock Out, a hybrid he first developed in 1988 but that was not introduced to the public until 2000. The Knock Out has since gone on to become the best-selling rose of all time, with more than 7 million plants sold annually, by Radler’s estimation.
“I’m a plant geek,” said Radler, who came out at the age of 22. “And I think I have an addictive personality, especially when it comes to roses.”
Radler bought his first rose at age 9 at a local A&P food store for 49 cents. It was part of the Floribunda hybrid known as Vogue, something the rosarian (as rose growers are called) today finds amusing.
“The first bud exploded into the most gorgeous thing that I had ever seen. And, it was fragrant!” Radler said “Before long, I had to have more plants to experience the multitude of colors, sizes and forms and the wealth of perfume fragrances that my grandparents’ catalogs had promised.”
By age 16, he had filled his parents’ backyard with 150 different roses and was a member of the North Shore Rose Society. That’s when he noticed the toll that rose gardening was taking on his older neighbors. Many of them had to cut back on their cultivation because they couldn’t keep up with the rigors and demands of their roses.
In response, Radler set out to create a rose that was hardy enough to withstand Wisconsin winters and could grow largely maintenance-free.
“Initially my motive was selfish,” he said. “I wanted to breed the maintenance out of roses so I wouldn’t have to cut back as the years passed.”
Radler began cross-pollinating different varieties of rose seeds found in the plants’ hips, using pollen from the male part of one rose to fertilize the female part of another rose. Desirable characteristics such as heartiness and disease-resistance from one rose were blended with other desirable characteristics, such as fragrance and physical beauty, from another variety.
It was during those experiments that the Knock Out was born in the basement lab of his home in Greenfield, where he had a two-acre rose garden.
“I had a neighbor who always complained about how the yard looked – its maintenance and so forth,” Radler says. “One day she pointed to a rose and said, ‘If you could make them all look like that, you’d really have something.’ And she was right.”
The rose the neighbor pointed to was Knock Out, a variety that draws its heartiness from the Applejack, Carefree Beauty and Eddie’s Crimson roses and its color and form from the Fabrege, Tampico, Playboy and other varieties. Radler worked with Conard-Pyle/Star Roses, a wholesaler and developer in West Grove, Penn., to develop and bring the rose to market. The Knock Out received the prestigious All American Rose Selection Award the year of its introduction. Conard-Pyle is the exclusive distributor of Knock Out, and Radler has received regular royalty checks on the sale of each plant since its introduction in 2000.
Radler, who received a degree in landscape architecture from UW-Madison, worked for the Milwaukee County Park System and as garden director for the Boerner Botanical Gardens from 1981 until his retirement in 1994. As the head of Rose Innovations LLC, which he operates out of his home and his two-acre garden of 1,500 different types of roses, Radler continues to experiment with hybrids.
In addition to Knock Out, he’s developed the Carefree Sunshine, Carefree Celebration, Winner’s Circle, Rambling Red, Can Can and a host of other roses. He was commissioned by Midwest Living Magazine to create the Midwest Living Rose and Stark Brother’s Nurseries and Orchards Co. to create the Stark Pink Lady. Nothing has yet approached the appeal and success of Knock Out.
The name of his most successful rose makes Radler laugh.
“The first name Conard-Pyle wanted to give it was Razzleberry, which was based on something someone there read in a children’s book,” he said. “Fortunately, another company had developed another plant by that name and wouldn’t give it up.”
Then the company came up with Knock Out, a name that Radler loved. However, the company spelled it wrong.
“This isn’t ‘knockout’ like some beautiful person, this is ‘knock out’ like what happens in the boxing ring,” he said. “Isn’t that just like me? I hate sports.”
Despite the error, everything is still coming up roses for Radler.