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Bloom comes off the rose industry

In recent years, time-strapped homeowners have traded their big tea roses for the easier-growing compact shrub variety. Many hybrid varieties may disappear from the marketplace.

March 08, 2012|By Debbie Arrington
  • Beverly Rose Hopper prunes a rose bush at the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden in San Jose. She volunteered to help care for them after city officials cut back on tending the garden because of budget troubles.
Beverly Rose Hopper prunes a rose bush at the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden… (Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — Future generations may never know the beauty of Diana, Princess of Wales; sniff Catalina in the sunshine; or fall for Beloved.

For a century, devoted gardeners have appreciated the marvels of delicate and finicky hybrid roses and referred to them by name, like pets or family. The product of generations of breeding, the queen of flowers could act like a spoiled princess because its delicate blooms offered a special reward.

In recent years, though, time-strapped homeowners have traded their big teas for compact shrub roses — utilitarian soldiers in the landscape that could cover ground without fuss.

Our desire for the carefree — no-iron shirts, no-wax floors, and now low-maintenance yards — has brought the rose industry to a crossroads.

"At some point, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Charlie Anderson, president of Weeks Roses, the only major company still creating new varieties of full-size roses. "[Landscape] roses will be all you have; the beautiful, unique hybrid teas will be gone."

The flagging economy has compounded the rose industry's troubles.

Two years ago, rose giant Jackson & Perkins, which had annually shipped 10 million bushes nationwide, filed for bankruptcy protection. Many of the hybrid roses the company created — such as Diana, Catalina and Beloved — may soon disappear from the mass market as the supply of those bushes dries up.

"Roses are viewed as an extravagance, and they're still trying to shed that stigma," said Seth Taylor of Capital Nursery.

"People have a very specific thing in mind when they think of a rose — it's full and lush and romantic. That's your traditional rose, what people love," Taylor said. "The single-petaled shrub roses are gaining a foothold with the public, but when my customers look at those flowers, they say, 'That's not a rose.'"

While gardeners may have visions of old-fashioned roses plucked from cottage gardens, their interest in growing them has waned, said Jolene Adams, incoming national president of the American Rose Society.

"Many homeowners have had some experience — usually in their mother's or grandmother's gardens — so they'll try growing roses," she said. "But without sufficient knowledge [on how to care for them], the roses languish and do not grow to their full, beautiful potential. And they're not replaced if they die."

Most of the nation's rosebushes originate in California's Central Valley. But unlike with wheat or tomatoes, it takes several years to produce a single crop of rosebushes.

Hybridizers typically will test 400,000 seedlings to find one or two new varieties. Once selected, a new hybrid will be developed for seven to 10 years before it's released into the market. When ready for sale, field-grown bushes are 2 years old.

Winter is prime rose-planting time. But this month, local gardeners are finding limited selections at nurseries and home centers.

"I observed dramatically fewer roses in the nurseries this year," said T.J. David, co-founder of the World Peace Rose Garden in Sacramento's Capitol Park.

"The financial ills of the rose growers will cause a slowdown in the number of new varieties of roses that are available for sale," he said. "Since growers make plans years in advance, it may take a year or two to see the full impact."

The annual wholesale value of California's rose crop dropped 55% to $27.20 million in 2010 from a high of $61.05 million in 2003, according to nursery industry expert Hoy Carman, a retired UC Davis professor.

"The whole nursery industry is down," Carman said. "In 2008, sales just plummeted."

Said Adams of the Rose Society: "Roses are not the first thing homeowners think of when they want to plant a garden. Competition with other choice plants is fierce.... The industry is going to have to change — and supply roses that the customers can use in the landscape."

Most major rose growers have gone bankrupt or consolidated with other wholesale nurseries.

Weeks Roses, in Wasco near Bakersfield, survived its bankruptcy and is now owned by Indiana-based Gardens Alive Inc. On 1,000 leased acres, Weeks will harvest about 3 million bushes this year. During grafting and harvest season, it employs almost 400 people.

Jackson & Perkins, acquired by J&P Park Acquisitions Inc. of South Carolina, no longer develops and grows new roses. Before bankruptcy, the company farmed 5,000 acres in Wasco with 20,000 bushes per acre. Without buyers, many of those bushes were burned.

Once a breeder goes bankrupt, its roses usually disappear with it. Rose patents — good for 18 to 20 years — may be sold, but budwood and mother plants are lost. Many Jackson & Perkins roses are now on the endangered list.

"Some will be preserved," Anderson said. "But a lot of varieties were lost; there was no budwood to collect [to create new hybrid bushes]. Most will just disappear into the ether."

Arrington writes for the Sacramento Bee/McClatchy.

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