by Mark Mason Taylor
In February, I didn’t really know what to expect before my visit to the Meilland Rose Breeding Center in Le Cannet-des-Maures, France. I had submitted a message via a form on their website and somehow I had nabbed an interview with the most famous family in the rose business.
The Meilland Family breeds winners. At the last Biltmore trials, they won two of the five prizes. New favorites like Knockout, Pinkerbelle, Tequila Supreme, and BougainFeelya all came out of their French countryside greenhouses. And, of course, the rose that inspired a thousand rosarians, the Peace rose, was invented by Francis Meilland in 1939.
I was nervous.
I drove down the aptly named, “Chemin des Rosieraies” (Rose Garden Way), turned right, and entered the breeding center. It was subdued and smelled like rain, a six hectares field studded with crumbly cottages and industrial greenhouses. My interview was about to begin.
The Meilland family has been breeding roses for six generations. By the time my family emigrated from Germany, the Meillands had already founded their business. Antoine Meilland was the patriarch who established the House, after learning grafting through his job on an apple orchard. But fame really came to the family name, when his son, Francis Meilland, created the aforementioned Peace rose. Alain Meiland, Francis’ son, describes how his father was optimistic by nature. In the post WWII world his simple rose, spread from nation to nation. A symbol of hope after such a dark time. Francis also traveled the world, taking bits and pieces from each country and incorporating them into the business. On his visit to America, he discovered Star Rose’s color photo catalog. The next season he added photos to his catalog in France, and the results were astounding. That year the business sold out of every rose. Francis saw how cut roses during winter were actually grown in Columbia. He duplicated the process for Europe, by building greenhouses in Kenya. He also discovered that a rose could be trademarked, a solution that finally made breeding, not just growing, profitable.
Sadly, Francis died when his son Alain was only a teenager. But on his deathbed he predicted how rose breeding would change in the next generation. The secret was data. Francis and Antoine kept copious scientific notes on every cross and breed conducted by the business. This data would be the competitive advantage in the next epoch.
Although I was understandably nervous, Matthias Meilland, the son of Alain Meiland could not have been kinder. He could tell I was a little star struck and after a mentioning my amazement at the Meilland family he explained to me that he had always grown up with it. Just like healthcare administration runs in my family’s veins, roses do in his. After all he’s only rose famous, not a Hollywood celebrity.
Feeling much more at ease, the interview became more of a conversation. Then the tour began. Each greenhouse had roses in different stages in development; seed, grade 1, and ginormous.
Hilariously, Matthias had been locked out of several of the greenhouses.
“They don’t let me touch this.” He noted.
After we walked past tray after tray of seedlings I remarked how it looked like a forest.
“It’s a numbers game.” Matthias said.
Less than 1% of all sown seeds actually go to market. For a florist rose it typically takes four years of testing and development. For a garden rose it takes twenty.
“So how do you tell you have a good rose?”
“Well, marketing would say a rose that sells. But there is something more than how you would normally pick a rose. It has to be the right time.”
Turns out rose buyers are just as fickle as everyone else. Disease resistance, fragrance, color, foliage, in the end it all comes down to that X-factor.
“You can have a beautiful rose,” Matthias continued. “But if it’s not meant to be.” He shrugged.
The next field we walked into was where roses went to die. It was a part of a forty year process in disease resistance selection (See the poster at the end of the article).
“This is the how do you call it. The no spray garden. We see how long they can make it, and you can see like this.” He pointed to a brown shriveled twig. “It didn’t make it. Oh and we cut them with [weedwackers] too.”
As we continued through the field, I thought, “Behold the birthplace of KnockOut.”
“So do you get along with the other breeders? Like is there any drama. Do you have a rivalry with Kordes.”
Matthias laughed. “Our test garden in Germany is right next to Kordes’. We can just climb up the ladder and see what they’re doing. We all get along. The only one who isn’t really like that is Austin.”
He was referring to David Austin, the famed rose breeder.
“Is that because he’s British?” I asked.
“I’m French so that’s what I think, but I wasn’t going to say it.”
We went back to the main office, which was filled with oodles of awards. I continued to pepper Matthias with questions.
“My favorite rose is Francis Meilland. I was in the New York Botanical Garden and walked past it, and I couldn’t believe the smell. It was like lemons, and so when I got home I had to buy it. What’s the story behind that one?”
“My dad said there never was a rose good enough to name after my grandfather. But when the guy at Star saw the rose, he said they had finally found a rose good enough. It’s a great rose. Kordes, actually, they told me that rose, Francis Meilland, makes a great mom. And I said, hey that’s my grandfather you’re talking about.
“So, are you an optimist?” I asked Matthias. “Your dad wrote in his book that he was.”
“You’ve seen me. What do you think?” He said with a grin. “Of course I’m an optimist. There’s always a silver, what is that?”
“Every year that fridge with the pollen breaks. And so we have to get all the roses bred in 24 hours. It’s crazy. But out of that comes some great roses.”
My visit to the center taught me many practical lessons about rose breeding; A greater appreciation for breeders, the importance of disease resistance, British reservedness. But the lesson I cherish the most is that there is beauty in chaos. Maelstroms always come with rain.
Life right now certainly feels hectic, with uncertainty everywhere. But there will always be a new beautiful rose to look forward to.