Califonia Bountiful

A touch of English charm

July/August 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Old-fashioned roses help grower make it in a modern world

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Janet Louie, left, is the exclusive North American grower of specialty David Austin roses, which are popular with florist Mark Silacci's wedding clientele and other customers. Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

Getting married these days can sometimes take a lot of Patience. Literally.

Mark Silacci, who owns Swenson & Silacci floral shops in Salinas and Monterey, says the pale Patience rose is just the thing to deliver the trending colors of cream and white that many couples request. He also favors the peach-colored Juliet rose and turns to a grower just a few miles up the road, Green Valley Floral, for fresh-cut stems of both varieties to create arrangements that play to current trends.

"That cabbage rose, fresh-from-the-garden kind of look, it's pretty hot right now in all the magazines and Pinterest," Silacci said.

The roses Silacci and many of his customers seek come from England, by way of Salinas. They're David Austin roses, trademarked by a family business that takes its name from breeder David Austin Sr., who began developing the varieties in the 1950s. Austin sought to blend old-style garden roses, known for their heavy fragrance and full blossoms, with the modern rose's repeat flowering capability and range of colors.

Long a hit with gardeners, the old-fashioned, petal-packed blooms of Austin's so-called English roses represent a departure from the tight, elegant, pointed blossoms of the modern hybrid tea rose typically used for cut-flower arrangements.

Silacci uses the English roses to create bridal bouquets with cottage-garden appeal. Photo courtesy of Heidi Borgia

Green Valley Floral is the only flower farm in North America licensed to grow the David Austin line. It's a husband-and-wife operation, where Curtis Louie oversees growing operations and Janet Louie handles sales and marketing.

Janet Louie's parents, Michael and Tomi Matsuno, founded Green Valley Floral in 1973. Hers was one of about 60 Japanese-American families with flower farms in the area.

"Salinas was ideal, climate-wise, for growing flowers," Louie said.

At first, she had no intention of joining the business. Louie went to the University of California, Davis, and pursued an engineering degree, although she didn't take it up as a career. She ended up moving to Japan for two years, where she was thrilled to learn about her culture, she said.

When she came home, she was looking for work—and the manager of her parents' business had just resigned. Her parents tapped her to step in, but she was hesitant.

"I had no office, no business background—really, no business being in that office at the time," she said.

She had also recently gotten engaged and was thinking of moving to San Francisco to be with Curtis.

"My parents just said, 'Wait a minute. We need you here. We'll take both of you,'" Louie said. "And they gave us an opportunity."

It's an opportunity they're still making the most of, in a challenging environment for California rose growers.

Louie grows roses year-round in the greenhouses of Green Valley Floral, including David Austin varieties Keira, Patience and Juliet (from left). Photo: © 2019 Richard Green


"It takes stalwart commitment to the tradition of growing roses in the United States, and obviously specifically here in California," said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission. "It's no easy road right now with how dominating the imports are."

In 1990, the United States had 287 commercial rose growers, Cronquist said, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991—designed to encourage Colombia, Ecuador and other nations in the Andes to turn away from growing drug crops by allowing tariff-free access to U.S. markets for certain products—resulted in a booming South American cut-flower business, and American rose growing began to decline. As of 2015, the number of U.S. rose growers was down to 26, although many of these aren't large-scale producers, Cronquist added.

"I would say, commercially grown roses in the United States, we're down to about six (growers)," Cronquist said. "And I can name them."

Green Valley Floral employee Maria Martinez transports roses in hydrating solution from the greenhouse to the packing shed. Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

Against that backdrop, Louie and the other surviving growers have made it work by seeking new markets. Instead of concentrating on red roses for Valentine's Day and on Mother's Day, Louie goes after the wedding and events market. Doing so provides nearly year-round opportunity, rather than relying on the sales of a few holidays. People are finding creative ways to control costs as the price tag for weddings continues to climb, she said, choosing dates in traditionally off-peak months such as November and February.

Silacci, who provides floral designs for hundreds of weddings per year, said prime wedding season along the Central Coast occurs mainly March through October, with Monterey and Carmel peaking from August to October, when the weather is best.

Going after this market has led to a major change in Louie's color mix.

"We don't have very many red roses at all. We leave that to the importers, and we focus on the blushes and the creams and the other off-colors," Louie said.

Reyna Sanchez grades roses in preparation for shipping. Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

The scent of a rose

Delivering roses of top-notch quality is one way Louie ensures her customers will keep coming back.

"We're trying to develop a specialty line of roses that nobody's seen before," Louie said. "That's been our motto the last 10 years, and that's why we're still here."

Being grown in California also brings some advantages, said Louie, whose farm participates in the Certified American Grown program, which promotes the practice of buying domestic flowers.

"For one, locally grown, freshest-in-the-market has a lot to do with it," she said. "People are very aware of asking where your flowers are from."

Being much closer to the market can also appeal to customers' noses, Louie said. "Stopping to smell" imported roses these days yields little pleasure, as they've lost much of their scent, she said.

"The reason the flower gives off scent is because it's telling the world it's dying," Louie explained. "The exports have been so successful (because) they've taken away the scent. It basically adds longevity to the roses so they can ship longer. The fact that we can grow a scented rose, it adds a plus."

Rose growers are typically interested in high yield, and some of the varieties Louie has chosen for her greenhouse don't necessarily meet that test.

"But we took a gamble on them," she said. "We just said, 'You know, nobody's providing that in the marketplace, and there is a need for that."

It was about 14 years ago that Louie met rose breeder David Austin Jr., whom she said was thinking along the same lines.

"It's just been a great relationship, where he understood markets that didn't exist for rose people before," Louie said. "It's sort of like bringing the garden world into the regular consumer world and understanding that you could actually have both."

Silacci said his company was invited to the early meetings with Green Valley Floral and Austin to provide a retailer's point of view.

"I think that speaks to our relationship," Silacci said.

It's a relationship that's been fruitful not only for the longtime local florist, but that has benefited his customers as well, if a river of positive online reviews is any indication.

That connection among grower, florist and customer is at the heart of the domestic floral industry's survival strategy, Cronquist said. Focusing on delivering the highest quality flowers while practicing inventiveness and staying on trend both benefits customers and helps California rose farmers stay in business.

"Right now, we're in a garden, whimsical-type design style, and that really plays well for California rose farmers who are selling for all kinds of occasions," he noted. "I think our rose farmers are leading the way in recognizing that our best efforts are spent trying to get people to buy flowers year-round, particularly California- and American-grown, and giving people reasons to do it."

Kevin Hecteman

Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

Flowers for a cause

In addition to providing blooms to brighten local homes, businesses and events, flower grower Janet Louie and florist Mark Silacci are very much interested in nurturing their community's roots.

The two have teamed on a "Flowers for a Year" prize for auctions at charity events. The prize is two bunches of garden roses from Louie, in a vase arranged by Silacci, delivered once a month for 12 months.

"Typically, you'll have a couple people battling it out in the bidding," Silacci said. "I always tell the group that if it gets over a certain amount, usually $1,500, we'll do another one so you can sell it twice."

His favorite tale: Five people were bidding on the prize, and Silacci told the auctioneer that if all five committed to $2,000 each, he'd make good on all of them.

"Of course it happened, and of course Janet was more than willing to provide the flowers," Silacci said. "Pretty cool how our flowers raised $10,000 for the charity."

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