The Abundant Roses of J & P
by Nanette Londeree, Marin Rose Society, Master Rosarian
This article was originally published in The Marin Rose June 2006
'French Lace' photo by Rita Perwich
If you’ve been growing roses for a while, you’ve probably heard of the rose giant Jackson & Perkins, commonly known as J&P. They are to roses what Ernest & Julio Gallo are to wine. Simply put, the biggest grower of roses in the world. And they’ve been at it for over 130 years. In those early days, when you bought a garden plant from Jackson & Perkins, chances are you would make your purchase directly from Charlie Perkins himself who would say, "If it doesn't grow for you, let me know." When they did contact him about a plant that didn’t grow, he would provide either a replacement or a refund. To this day, every Jackson & Perkins plant is guaranteed to grow.
In 1872, Charles Perkins and his father-in-law, A.E. Jackson, started up a modest enterprise wholesaling strawberries and grape plants from a farm in Newark, New York. Perkins was the active partner, while Jackson provided the financial backing. They got into roses almost by chance as the result of an employee's interest in rose breeding. In 1896 the company hired E. Alvin Miller, who, in addition to his regular duties, tried his hand at hybridizing roses. In 1901, Jackson & Perkins marketed one of Miller's varieties, a climber named after Charlie’s granddaughter, ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (ABOVE: photo by Nanette Londeree). The light pink, fragrant, abundant blooms covered the plant which was hardy in cold climate. It became one of the most widely planted roses in the world. This surprising success prompted J&P to focus on roses as its main product. As more energy went into creating and marketing new varieties, the company began to employ full-time hybridizers.
Next in line to lead the breeding efforts was Jean Henri Nicolas, who came from the rival rose growing firm of Conard-Pyle Company. During this time, his research department came up with the idea of selling roses in containers, “canned” roses they called them. The idea came from a nurseryman named Wedge, who compressed the roots in peat moss by a machine he had adapted from one that molded blocks of cement. J&P bought the patent and went into business. This was a big step in being able to extend their sales season.
The next head of research was Eugene Gene Boerner, who came to be known as “Papa Floribunda.” Born in Wisconsin of German heritage, he joined J&P in 1920, and made enough progress that he was able to acquire a financial interest in the company. Along with Wilhelm Kordes in Germany, they began crossing hybrid polyanthas and hybrid tea roses, and helped develop a new class of cluster blooming roses that was named “floribunda” by Charlie’s cousin, C. H. Perkins. In 1939, at the World’s Fair, J&P set up a small stand to sell their red floribunda that they named ‘World’s Fair’. They were overwhelmed by orders from the general public, many who asked the company to mail the roses to their home instead of them taking them. The customers told their friends back home of the convenience offered in receiving roses by mail. Orders began to pour in from all over the nation, which Jackson & Perkins began to fill by mail. A new way of commerce in plants was born. What had been a nursery serving New York area gardeners became a mail-order concern serving gardeners across the nation. Over the next several years, this part of the business grew so much that the company published its first catalogue. Little Newark, NY soon began to call itself the Rose Capital of America, and thousands came each spring and summer to see the famous roses of Jackson & Perkins.
From his upbringing in Wisconsin, Boerner had ambitions to create roses that were both beautiful and hardy, so that people that lived in cold climates could enjoy them. He had a string of popular successes including ‘Goldilocks’ in 1945, ‘Masquerade’ in 1949, the coral colored ‘Fashion’, and the lovely ‘Apricot Nectar’ to name a few. While known for his floribundas, he also developed the enormous pink blooming hybrid tea ‘First Prize’ and striking white ‘John F Kennedy’.
During his tenure at the breeding bench, J&P’s success was causing production problems. They were selling so much they couldn’t grow plants fast enough in New York’s short growing season, so they purchased 360 acres in Arizona, and set up their rose growing facility. By 1963 they had expanded to 5,000 acres and were growing millions of roses.
“Papa Floribunda” passed away in 1966 and was succeeded by William Warriner. About the same time, J&P was acquired by Harry & David of Medford, Oregon, purveyors of fresh fruit and food by mail. They made the decision to consolidate all the operations in the west, so they closed the New York facility, sold the Arizona acres, and focused their growing operations in Wasco, and research in Tustin, California. Warriner had been developing his breeding knowledge under rose growers and breeders Howard & Smith. In his new position, he was responsible for the development of 110 rose varieties that resulted in the sale of 40 million plants and 20 All-America Rose Selections (AARS). In 1980 he introduced the successful trio of All-America Rose Selections winners that year - ‘Love’, ‘Honor’ and ‘Cherish’. Some of his best hybrid teas include ‘Color Magic’ (ABOVE: by Nanette Londeree) and ‘Pristine’. The beautiful cream colored ‘French Lace’, grape-purple, super fragrant ‘Intrigue’ and the ruffled pinks ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Tournament of Roses’ (BELOW: by Rita Perwich).
Dr. Keith Zary joined Jackson & Perkins in 1985 as only the fourth breeder in the company's history. He combines tradition with the latest technology to create novel roses for customers around the world. With a focus on creating strong, high quality, cold-hardy plants that are easy to grow and maintain, he is responsible for growing some 400,000 varieties of roses in the company's 20 acres of research gardens and greenhouses. He hit the jackpot early on with ‘Gemini’ and ‘Veteran’s Honor’. ‘Gemini’ (ABOVE: photo by Nanette Londeree) was the winner of the American Rose Society’s Member’s Choice Award in 2005.
Today, Jackson & Perkins is a full-service nursery offering all kinds of flowers, trees, shrubs, ground coverings, bulbs, decorative garden gifts, tools, garden accessories, plant care products and, of course roses, where along with Harry and David, it’s now a part of Bear Creek Corporation, shipping over 3 million roses and other plants to customers every year.