Didja hear dat Ole and Lena never have ice at deir house? Ya, Sven sez dey can't remember da recipe.

Go ahead and laugh. For generations, those nutty Norwegians -- Ole, Lena and their sidekick, Sven -- have been the butt of endless ethnic jokes.

But now they're getting a little respect, albeit in the oddest of places: the plant world.

In a rare stab at horticultural humor, three new shrub roses have been named in their honor.

"It's getting hard to name plants," explained Peggy Anne Montgomery, a horticulturist with Bailey Nurseries, the Newport wholesaler that is marketing and selling the roses. "Everything is already trademarked and patented."

Because the roses were developed by the University of Minnesota specifically for northern climes like ours, the folks at Bailey wanted them to have names that reflected their hardiness and their home-grown appeal.

"We were talking about Minnesota place names -- Lutsen, Duluth -- then somebody suggested Sven, Ole and Lena as a joke," said Montgomery. "We decided to go with it."

Initially, the names got a mixed reaction at the U, said Stan Hokanson, an associate professor of horticulture.

"Some people thought the names might be offensive or trivial," he said. "But I thought it was clever and funny and very Minnesota-like."

Hokanson decided that since Bailey "knows what make people buy plants," the names it selected would stay.

If Bailey's plant names are funny, its plant tags are downright hilarious.

The oversized, cartoonish plant tags feature Minnesota-speak such as "Ya, you betcha" and "Uff-da," as well as caricatures of a grinning Ole, a balding, myopic Sven and an apron-clad Lena with a kerchief pulled down to her schnoz.

Even the plant descriptions ("Oh, jeez, ya never saw anything so pretty") and planting directions ("One end smells good. Ya put the udder in da dirt") get the comic treatment.

But Montgomery insists that while the plant names are a novelty, the plants themselves are not.

Pretty and hardy

Part of the new Northern Accents series, the compact, ever-blooming roses have small flowers (1 to 2 inches across), "but they produce hundreds of flowers at a time," said Kathy Zuzek, the plant breeder who spent 20 years developing the roses for the university. "It's just wave after wave of bloom."

Ole's flowers are pale pink (described as somewhere between "salmon" and "lutefisk"). Lena has "frilly pink and white" flowers and bright green foliage. And Sven's mauve- to violet-colored flowers are noted for their fragrance.

Because the plants die back to the ground every winter, they reach a height of only 3 to 4 feet. But, unlike many roses, they need no special care to survive winter, according to Montgomery. "They're stone-cold hardy," she said.

Bailey tested the roses for three years, but only after they had been field-tested at the university for as many as five years, then subjected to trials across the state.

"We grew them in the Twin Cities, but they've been up in Grand Rapids in 40-below weather," said Zuzek. "Of course, that was with snow cover."

Limited release

After so many years of development and testing, Zuzek said, the release of Ole, Lena and Sven is "thrilling," but she admits her "babies" aren't likely to be bestsellers everywhere.

"They probably won't be popular farther south," she said. "They have lots of roses that we can't grow here. They don't need the hardiness."

But the Nordic-named roses seem to be a hit at home. Bailey has sold out of its limited stock for the year. And although planting season is more than a month away, questions about the roses have been percolating up to the garden centers.

"We've already had people calling," said Jonnie Kunce, supervisor of customer service at Linder's Garden Center in St. Paul. "Part of the interest is the fun of the name. But these roses sound like they have a lot of promise."

Kunce said Linder's will sell a limited number of the roses for $27.99 for a 2-gallon pot on a first-come, first-served basis this spring. Other area garden centers, including Bachman's stores, will take preorders.

If you want to get your hands on an Ole, Lena or Sven, Montgomery recommends calling or visiting your favorite garden center early (the big-box stores won't have them) or being patient and waiting until next year.

"There will be more next year," she said.

And she's not joking.

Connie Nelson • 612-673-7087