The Romantic Meilland Roses
by Nanette Londeree, Marin County Rose Society, Master Rosarian
This article was originally published in The Marin Rose in 2006.
“To praise, justify and thank the Meilland family, only four words are needed: They gave us ‘Peace’“ says Jack Harkness in his book The Makers of Heavenly Roses, ('Peace photo by Nanette Londeree). The romantic story of the ‘Peace’ rose is well established now in rose history. There is an equally charming history for this family that has produced not only the world’s most famous rose, but an armload of other wonderful roses as well.
The story begins with Antoine Meilland. Born in 1884 in the village of Chamboeuf in France, he was one of four children. His parents had experienced the trauma of war during a siege by the Prussians in 1870, where his mother Jenny lost a hand, and instead had an iron hook. A very popular Meilland rose is named in her honor, ‘Grand ‘mere Jenny’. At the age of twelve, Antoine announced that he was finished with school and had decided to embark on a career as a rose grower, having been enamored with roses from a young age. The local schoolmaster’s widow had nurtured his interest in roses and taught him how to bud a rose. He invested his entire savings of thirty sou on a budding knife – and his career was launched. He worked for the next four years in a local nursery, and at the age of sixteen went to work for Francis Dubreuil, who introduced the still popular ‘Perle d’ Or’. After nine years in his employ, he married the boss’s daughter Claudia, and produced a son, Francis in 1909.
Francis followed quickly in his father’s footsteps. At the age of fourteen, he chose to work in the family rose nursery over attending school, much to his mother’s chagrin. Charles Mallerin, a retired engineer turned rose hybridizer who lived in a nearby town, invited other hybridizers to come and visit, and Francis along with his father accepted. This was the start of an eventful relationship, as Mallerin introduced the Medilland’s to the American businessman Robert Pyle who contracted with Francis to introduce his roses in the United States and ultimately introduced ‘Peace’ in the U.S.
After the unexpected loss of his mother Claudia at age forty, Francis decided that the real future of roses was in America, so, on a shoe-string budget, he traveled across the Atlantic, bought an inexpensive Studebaker and traversed North America. He returned home with several significant impressions of the rose business. One was that to sell roses, you needed a good catalog, in color. To grow roses for sale, you needed machinery and to keep them in good condition you needed cold storage. He spent the rest of his life putting these ideas into practice. His first successful rose to be introduced by Conard-Pyle company in the U.S. in 1937 was ‘Golden State’, named for a yellow rose tied to the International Exhibition in San Francisco. His next introduction started out as a weak seedling, but a few budded eyes took off, and produced wonderfully full flowers in a delicate yellow and pink blend. This rose would be introduced in France in 1942 as ‘Mme A Meilland’ in memory of his mother. In Germany, the rose was named ‘Gloria Dei’, in Italy, ‘Gioia’, and in the United States in 1945 it was introduced as ‘Peace’. With the resulting proceeds from the sale of this amazing rose, the Meillands’ decided they would no longer sell rose plants but focus only on breeding.
During this time, Francis married the daughter of an Italian rose grower, Francesco Paolino. With his new wife Louisette, they now had all sides of the family emanating from rose growers. Their son Alain was born in 1940 and would follow in his fathers’ and grandfathers’ footsteps. Acting as the company’s lawyer, businessman, and breeder, Francis was consumed with roses. He was instrumental in establishing a system for breeders to receive royalties for their introductions. While it was not well accepted initially, the practice was ultimately adopted in many European countries. In 1954, he introduced ‘Baccara’, a long-stemmed bright red rose that was an instant success for the florist trade. Other introductions included ‘Michele Meilland’, ‘Eden Rose’, ‘Bettina’, and ‘Charles Mallerin’ to name a few. Unfortunately, Francis succumbed to cancer in 1958 at the early age of 46. It was now up to Alain, with help from his mother and grandfather, to carry on the family business.
The Meilland organization prospered under Alain’s direction, and is now a well-established international business. Their focus has included roses for the cut flower trade, creating unique blooms like ‘Léonidas’; miniature roses, with the orange-red Miniature Rose Hall of Fame winner, ‘Starina’, a shining example, and wonderful hybrid teas and floribundas. Named for the family patriarch, Antoine, ‘Papa Meilland’, was introduced in 1963. The deep red, extremely fragrant hybrid tea is one of the few roses to win the James Alexander Gamble Fragrance Medal (1974) and be inducted into the World Rose Hall of Fame (1988). Another stellar example of fragrant roses is ‘The McCartney Rose’, a clear pink hybrid tea personally selected by the former Beatle. The pink blend ‘Elle’ is a recent AARS award winner. Notable floribundas ( and AARS winners) include the brilliant orange ‘Sarabande’ that maintains an ARS rating of 8.0 nearly fifty years after its introduction, and ‘Marmalade Skies’, another orange blend winning the distinction in 2001. RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: 'Elle' photo by Rich Baer, 'McCartney Rose' photo by Nanette Londeree, ‘Papa Meilland’ photo by Rich Baer.
The Meillands have created a whole group of incredible shrub roses. ‘Bonica’, the soft pink shrub introduced in 1985, was the third Meilland rose to be inducted into the World Rose Hall of Fame (2003); they are the only hybridizers to have achieved this. Their landscape roses began to appear in the 1980s and proved to be durable, literally carefree plants that now dot streets and highways.
Their website describes them best: “They are vigorous and fast growing, tolerant of poor growing conditions, very disease resistant and are very winter hardy. They need little or no spraying or pruning. Just trim the branch tips lightly. If you wish you don't even have to do that to enjoy their beauty in the landscape.” ‘Le Sevillana’ is a spectacular orange red that is covered with blooms throughout the season, and nearly disease free.
LEFT, TOP TO BOTTOM: ‘Marmalade Skies’ photo by Rich Baer, 'Le Sevillana' photo by Nanette Londeree, ‘Bonica’ photo by Nanette Londeree.
Around the time that David Austin was hitting the market with his English roses, Meilland was introducing their “Romantica” roses. Some noteworthy examples are the lovely soft pink floribunda ‘Johann Strauss’, ‘Frederic Mistral’ a light pink hybrid tea, and the deep pink hybrid tea ‘Yves Piaget’, (LEFT: photo by Rich Baer).
As of today, Meilland holds more than 1,000 patents worldwide, 50% of which are less than 3 years old, and owns 600 trademarks. With nursery production covering 1,500 acres in France, Spain, Morocco, the Netherlands, and California, they’re selling 12 million rosebushes a year. They remain a 100% family-owned business with Alain and sister Michele heading the business and Jacques Mouchotte leading the breeding. In his book, A Life in Roses, Alain says “My family ‘got into roses’ more than a century ago, around 1850. Since then, we have continued to work, hybridize, observe, reflect, notice, and classify...”
Watch out for one of their new roses to be introduced in 2007. They created ‘Liv Tyler’ for Givenchy Perfumes. “Irresistibly beautiful with its delicate pink color, this rose is irresistibly fragrant, with a powerful, long lasting scent.” You can bet we’ll be seeing a lot more romantic Meilland roses in the years to come; the sixth generation is apparently already begun!