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Small town is big on roses

Medford's Jackson & Perkins grows 200 varieties there

From wire and staff reports

WASCO, Calif. -- This small Kern County town of 20,000 residents may be the best smelling city in the United States.

Wasco residents call their city the Rose Capital of the World -- with good reason.

The world's largest rose producer, Medford-based Jackson & Perkins, grows more than 200 varieties of roses on about 5,200 acres near Wasco.

The area produces about 30 million rose plants each year, making up more than half of the amount grown in the United States.

The plants get shipped to numerous destinations including nurseries, garden centers, greenhouses and to other flower growers both domestic and overseas. Some industry experts estimate roughly 60 percent of all roses in the nation originate from the Wasco area.

This is probably the best area to grow roses, said Dwayne Hutson, technical adviser of nursery operations at Jackson & Perkins, a subsidiary of Bear Creek Corp. It's the best in weather, quality of water -- both in wells and canals -- and also soil. The sandy soil takes more water and fertilizer, but it's easier to manage during winter time when we're harvesting.

California's mild temperatures also mean longer growing seasons, and the region's cool, foggy, damp winter conditions keep the rose plant roots from getting dry during processing, Hutson said.

When we were in New York many, many years ago, the growing season would average about 150 to 160 days. Here, we don't have that cold weather, so we can go maybe about 320 days, he said.

Getting those extra days are significant, since it takes most roses two full years to be ready for harvest in the months of November, December and January.

Last week, workers began cutting the tops of the rose plants and uprooting them.

A large tractor pulling a three-point hitch digs up the plants, shakes the dirt loose and throws them aside. A crew of 20 workers bundle up 10 plants and load them on a truck.

The root stock is taken to a processing plant, where they are separated by quality, packaged and boxed for shipment.

Growing roses in this southern San Joaquin Valley region is not all that old.

The first nurserymen came to the area in the late 1950s as urbanization gobbled up prime farmland in San Bernardino and Orange counties.

Some growers chose to keep their processing plants and administrative offices in Southern California while growing their roses in Wasco.

At 250, we grow more varieties than any other grower in the industry, said Charlie Huecker, co-owner of Weeks Wholesale Rose Grower, Inc., which is headquartered in Upland. There are about 20 major rose plant growers in the United States, he said.

John Karlik, a University of California horticulture adviser, said the rose industry has been mature for a while.

The demand has been pretty constant for years, Karlik said. I really haven't seen any new growers in the last 15 years. Some growers have joined forces in the past, but that's just about it.

Although that makes it very difficult for new growers to enter the market, there is plenty to go around for those who are already in it.

The rose plant industry generates at least $150 million in revenues each year, said Huecker, who also is the chairman of the Garden Rose Council.

However, some believe as the baby boomers get older, the demand may go up.

As baby boomers settle into houses, they're beginning to enjoy what their parents used to have -- rose bushes and rose gardens, said Bill Ihle, Bear Creek's vice president of corporate relations.

— — `Ultimate Pink' to debut

Ultimate Pink leads the list of new — roses to be presented early next year by Jackson & Perkins.

The Medford-based company, the world's largest rose producer, describes the — Ultimate Pink as absolutely flawless in color and form.

It's taken 10 years for the hybrid tea rose to go from a test seedling to the company's — top new rose. The company has applied for a patent on the hybrid, which is listed in the — Jackson & Perkins catalog at $17.95.

The company's next bareroot rose plant shipments won't come until spring, but orders — are being taken now.

Other new roses available include the official Diana, Princess of Wales — rose, the Candelabra and the Kaleidoscope.