Felicitas Svejda | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Felicitas Svejda

Felicitas Svejda, rose breeder, civil servant, geneticist (born 8 November 1920 in Vienna, Austria; died 19 January 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario). Svejda was one of the most successful rose hybridizers in Canada. She led the rose breeding program at the Department of Agriculture's Central Experimental Farm, where she developed a series of roses that could withstand Canadian winters. The roses, named after explorers in Canadian history, are grown across Canada and other cold-climate countries.

Rosa Alexander Mackenzie

Education and Early Career

Felicitas Svejda earned her PhD in agricultural science from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna in 1948. She worked as an agricultural economics research assistant at the university between 1947 and 1951. In 1952, she began working at the Swedish Association of Seed Selection’s Research Station in Svalöv, Sweden; this position lasted one year. The following year, Svejda immigrated to Canada, settling in Ottawa. Her first job in Canada was as a statistician studying cereal grains with the federal Department of Agriculture (now called the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)at the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) between 1953 and 1961. The CEF, now a national historic site, was established in Ottawa in 1886 as an agricultural research facility for the Department of Agriculture.

Rose Breeding

In 1961, Felicitas Svejda was transferred to the ornamental plant breeding program at the CEF. Since the CEF’s founding, staff had been trying to develop hardy roses suited to the Canadian climate. Its first director, Dr. William Saunders, had crossed several hardy bushes. Then, from the 1920s to 1940s, Plant hybridist Isabella Preston continued this work from 1920 to the 1940s, releasing about 20 varieties s. The program was then suspended until 1961, when Svejda re-established Preston’s work on rose breeding.

“I was asked by Agriculture Canada to look into the possibility of developing winterhardy and everblooming roses... I knew nothing about roses. This was a blessing because I had no preconceived notion. I had to learn. The easiest way was by observation.”
— Felicitas Svejda

When Svejda started the program, roses could only grow in Canada’s warmest climates: the coast of British Columbia and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario. Svejda’s task was to develop roses that could withstand temperatures as cold as -50℃ while still blooming in the summer.

To achieve this, Svejda observed existing roses and selected breeds that displayed characteristics that made hardy plants, such as cold tolerance and resistance to black spot. The chosen breeds were then cross pollinated naturally by insects or manually. She then collected and planted the rosehips (seeds from the parent plant) and waited to see if the new breed was successful. The process to hybridize roses can take eight to 10 years.

While Svejda is best known for her work on roses, she also produced new varieties of Weigela, Philadelphus and Forsythia throughout her tenure at the CEF. She led the ornamental plant breeding program for nearly 25 years until her retirement in 1986.

Plant Hardiness Zones

Plant Hardiness Zones are ratings used to determine where a plant will be able to survive in Canada. Zones are rated on a scale of 0 to 9, with 0 being the coldest and 9 the warmest. This helps gardeners and forest managers know which plants will grow in what location. In Canada, the first Plant Hardiness Zone Map was developed by the Department of Agriculture in the 1960s. Svejda’s task was to develop roses that could be planted in regions as cold as Zone 2.

Plant Hardiness Zones

Explorer Rose Series

The first national trial of Svejda’s roses began in 1968. These roses were sent to various locations across Canada and the United States to determine whether they could withstand different climates. In later trials, Svejda’s roses were sent as far as New Zealand. Svejda’s roses are notable for their ability to withstand cold temperatures without needing to be covered in the winter. She detailed the process of her work in journal articles and a book, The Canadian Explorer Roses (2008).

In 1968, Svejda released the first rose in her series, a soft pink rose named after English explorer Martin Frobisher. The series would eventually include 25 rose breeds named after explorers in Canadian history. Throughout her tenure, Svejda developed the first 13 roses of the Explorer Series, and colleagues in the field continued her work to develop the remaining 12.

Today, Explorer Roses are grown across Canada and other countries with cold climates, such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Iceland and Russia.

Explorer Roses

Breed Year Released
Martin Frobisher 1968
Jens Munk 1974
Henry Hudson 1976
John Cabot 1978
David Thompson 1979
John Franklin 1980
Champlain 1982
Charles Albanel 1982
William Baffin 1983
Henry Kelsey 1984
Alexander Mackenzie 1985
John Davis 1986
J.P. Connell
*Named after Canadian civil servant J.P. Connell
Captain Samuel Holland 1990
Louis Jolliet 1990
Frontenac 1992
Simon Fraser 1992
George Vancouver 1994
Quadra 1994
Lambert Closse 1995
Royal Edward 1995
Nicolas 1996
AC de Montarville 1997
AC Marie-Victorin 1998
AC William Booth 1999

Honours and Legacy

Felicitas Svejda has been honoured for her contributions to science and horticulture. She was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from York University in 2000, and she received awards from the Royal National Rose Society of Great Britain, the Canadian Ornamental Plant Foundation and the Portland Rose Society. Svejda was also made an honorary life member of the Canadian Rose Society.

In 2005, Explorer Roses were planted in a garden at the Central Experimental Farm to showcase Svejda’s hybridized roses. Her donated research papers, correspondence and library are housed in the Montreal Botanical Garden Library.