Colin from the Dickson family

If you’re looking for someone in Northern Ireland to breed a very special rose there is one obvious candidate, Colin Dickson is the fifth generation of a family that has been breeding roses since 1879. That probably makes Dickson Roses, based in Newtownards, the oldest rose breeding family firm in the world.

 So, it is no surprise that Colin was approached to produce the Northern Ireland Centenary Rose earlier this year. Thirty roses have been planted at Hillsborough Castle and more will be planted later this year at Buckingham Palace.

So complex and lengthy is the breeding process (it takes between eight and ten years to breed a rose) that the chosen rose was one that had first been cross pollinated in 2013.

To create the Northern Ireland Centenary Rose, the seed parent, Spice of Life, was crossed with Light Fantastic, as the pollen parent, both roses bred by Colin himself. This crossing created a rose, Seeding B, which became the seed parent and was crossed with a rose called Moment in Time, as the pollen parent. This created the dark red floribunda, codenamed Dicamada. Dicamada was then crossed with Storyteller, a gold medal winner at the International Rose Trials at Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park in 2020.

The result? “A beautiful rose with delicate shades of pink, ivory and pale yellow”, which Colin expects to be in full bloom by June.

Colin has been immersed in the world of roses since he can remember. He learned the craft from his father, Patrick, as Patrick had done from his father. The first award winning rose he bred was ‘Elina’ in 1984, although, Colin smiles, ‘myself and my father agreed to disagree as to which one of us was most responsible for breeding it.”

The family firm was founded by Alexander Dickson in 1836, primarily as rose growers. His passion for roses was inherited by his children, eight sons and four daughters. The second generation began breeding roses in 1879 and by 1886 they were ready to exhibit several roses at the National Rose Society Show in London.

Many famous and award-winning roses were to follow, a family tradition that Colin, like his father before him, has added to magnificently.

Among many legendary roses bred by Patrick was one dedicated to his own father, called ‘Grandpa Dickson’. Colin still recalls standing with his brother, Adrian, and seven cousins for a photograph to commemorate this beautiful rose with ‘Grandpa Dickson’ himself in 1966. Having won multiple awards, a Grandpa Dickson Rose stamp was issued in 1976 to commemorate the centenary of the Royal National Rose Society.

 Colin himself has bred seven ‘Roses of the Year’ - Melody Maker, Gentle Touch, Dawn Chorus, Sweet Magic, Irish Eyes, Harvest Fayre and most recently, Lovestruck.

Remarkably, Dickson Roses are not the only world-famous rose breeding family from Northern Ireland. For many decades the firm of Samuel McGredy from Portadown had an equally illustrious record of global award winners. The last of the family rose breeders, the late Sam McGredy IV, became a legend in the field. Amongst others, the Queen Mother, Picasso and Hollywood film star Ginger Rogers all agreed to have McGredy roses named after them.

It was Sam McGredy IV who co-founded the beautiful City of Belfast International Rose Garden at Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park, where the sight of 45,000 roses in bloom in Rose Week is a highlight of the Belfast summer. It is also where the world-famous International Rose Trials take place each year, a competition of which Colin Dickson has many happy memories of triumphs.

That is not the only public garden to attract rose lovers in Northern Ireland. Created by Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, who was aunt to Her Majesty the Queen, the Granville Garden at Hillsborough Castle, where the Northern Ireland Centenary Roses have been planted, comes alive in summer when hundreds of beautiful roses come into bloom.

Sadly, the Dickson family rose breeding story is coming to an end. “My daughters have decided not to go into the profession,” says Colin, who is now in his 60s.  “I will be the last generation of the family. I actually stopped breeding roses in 2018, but those roses won’t come to fruition until at least 2026. In the meantime, I am still growing and introducing roses and people are still choosing my roses to name.”

As for the Northern Ireland Centenary Rose itself, Colin is very optimistic. “Early indications are very good indeed. People from all walks of life here have already shown an interest in it. I think for Northern Irish rose lovers living abroad it would be a lovely way to remember home.”

Watch this space! We look forward to bringing you photos of the Northern Ireland Centenary Rose in bloom this summer.