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UWRF associate professor follows dream with rose studies

March 4, 2015

UW-River Falls associate professor of horticulture David Zlesak has had a love of plants ever since he was a young boy.

His passion for gardening first developed after spending time on his grandparents’ farm as a child.

“I loved visiting my grandparents’ farm,” Zlesak said. “My parents moved to Milwaukee and left the farm scene so it skipped a generation.”

As a child, Zlesak recounts following several individuals around their gardens which kick-started his love of both gardening and nature. His true inspiration, though, came at 13 years old after reading an article in the Milwaukee Journal about Will Radler, director of Boerner Botanical Gardens, whose hobby was rose breeding.

“I saw the article, and the idea of coming up with new plants was a great inspiration to me,” Zlesak said. “So I wrote to Radler and he connected me to a newsletter on rose breeding, along with an older gentleman that lived in the same suburb of Milwaukee as me.”

This older gentleman, Elton Strack, became like a grandfather to Zlesak after he would visit Strack in his garden once a week.

“Elton was retired and had time to humor a youngin’ like myself,” Zlesak said.

In addition, Zlesak would also read articles in the Rose Hybridizer’s Association Newsletter. He recalls reading articles about breeding plants and different aspects of genetics that helped Zlesak to find his true passion: roses.

“The reason why I’m so passionate about roses today is that’s what I read about in the Milwaukee Journal that ultimately connected me to Elton,” Zlesak said. “As I’d follow him around his yard and learn about roses, that became my model crop.”

Zlesak attended UWRF and obtained his undergraduate degree in horticulture. To further his education, he also obtained degrees in plant breeding and genetics. Today, the work that Zlesak does with roses he considers to be more than just a hobby.

Through his research and breeding, he works with colleagues at the University of Minnesota to study rose diseases and categorize new rose viruses.

Zlesak is also part of a new national rose trialling and evaluation called the American Rose Trials for Sustainability. He also works with research through Earth-Kind. He does not think too much about the amount of time that he spends with roses, though, because he worries he’d wonder what else he does with his time.

Through his time and commitment to roses, Zlesak has developed what he considers to be his greatest accomplishment, the “Above and Beyond” rose.

The first cross for Above and Beyond was created in 2000 and was a seedling in 2001. The cross was made between a small yellow miniature rose and two hearty roses, one of which being the rose of virginiana from cold climates to create a hearty monster that can reach 10 to 14 feet tall and withstand cold climates.

“The rose of virginiana is very special because Elton collected it from the wild and shared it with me as a youth,” Zlesak said.

As a way to honor Strack, Zlesak included his name in the variety name, “ZLEEltonStrac.”

Above and Beyond will not be released until this spring through Bailey Nurseries First Editions, but is already an award winner earning top pick awards at the New England Growers event in Boston, Massachusetts.

“The awards are nice, but along the way the satisfaction I’ve learned is the journey,” Zlesak said.

Zlesak is continuing his journey of rose breeding and teaching at UWRF as a horticulture professor. He served as a mentor to 2012 UWRF graduate Zach Steeno.

“David basically taught me everything I know about roses,” Steeno said. “To anyone who doesn’t know David, I’d tell them this is ‘the guy’ you’d want as a mentor and friend because he bends over backwards for each of his students.”

In reference to the work that Zlesak does with roses, Steeno emphasized that David is not like every other rose breeder.

“David is a blue-collar rose breeder. He reaches for the stars with the species roses, makes crosses and continues to modify these hybrids to bring out the best traits,” Steeno said. “He goes that extra mile so that in the end, his results are miles ahead of those not taking the same path.”

Roses are not just a hobby for David Zlesak, but a lifelong passion that he works hard to pass on to others.

“The gate to my success is being able to share it with others,” Zlesak said.