J. Benjamin Williams; Bred Roses Named for Celebrities

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

J. Benjamin Williams, a rose breeder who developed varieties for international celebrities, died of cardiac arrest Nov. 1 at his home in Wheaton. He was 93.

Working from greenhouses at his home, Mr. Williams created roses that were later presented to, and named for, such notables as tennis star Gabriela Sabatini, Peggy Rockefeller and Celine Dion.

In 1987, a rose he created, "Slava," was presented at a birthday gala for Mstislav Rostropovich, former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

His rose creations also led to meetings with Donald Trump as well as the Delany sisters, the two pioneering African American sisters who came to fame as centenarians in the early 1990s. The Delany Sisters rose "is probably our finest," said Mr. Williams's grandson Scott Williams. The bloom is a coral pink and white grandiflora.

Mr. Williams was active until recently, attending a rose show in New Jersey a few weeks ago. He was still hybridizing roses this summer, his grandson said. "He was an amazing guy; he was in the garden every day," Scott Williams said.

Jesse Benjamin Williams, who was called Ben, was born in La Plata, Mo., and was a combat veteran of World War II, fighting in France and Germany with the 63rd Infantry Division. Shortly after the war, he found himself in a rose garden in Baden-Baden and discovered a German rose breeder who introduced him to the idea of hybridizing.

After the war, he came to Washington and worked for the General Accounting Office. Already passionate about horticulture and roses, he took plant pathology classes at the U.S. Agriculture Department.

In Wheaton in the 1950s, he raised roses for pleasure and exhibition. A noted Washington rose breeder, Niels Hansen, later showed him the mechanics of hybridizing, and he was hooked. The breeder acts as a bee, transferring the pollen from one rosebush to another in the hopes of producing a new and worthy seedling that then can be cloned. In 1972, Mr. Williams set up in business as an independent rose breeder and began working with major growers to propagate, test and, sometimes, introduce patented varieties.

He favored small rose shrubs used as ground covers and invented a category of rose called the miniflora, smaller than a grandiflora but larger than a miniature rose.

"I have memories as a young man of Ben; he was always wearing a suit and white shirt and tie out in the rose fields making selections," said Steve Hutton, president of Conard-Pyle Co., a major rose nursery in West Grove, Pa. One of Mr. Williams's successes was a red pillar rose named Red Fountain.

Perhaps inspired by a practice in England, he hit on the idea of exclusive introductions in which a person or organization could purchase a rose named for an individual. Sponsors would pay between $10,000 and $30,000 for a named variety, which Mr. Williams would select from a stock of about 200 roses he deemed superior. The decision was often made using photographs, his grandson said. "In the case of Celine Dion, she went to one of our growers in Canada and walked the fields to choose the rose herself," he said.

Mr. Williams was a member of the American Rose Society and its local chapters and was active in the Maryland Nurserymen's Association, serving as the group's executive secretary for 13 years.

His wife of 55 years, Lillian Williams, died in 1995.

Survivors include a son, Benjamin R. Williams of Wheaton; and two grandsons.

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