By Jacques Ferare
The House of Meilland, or Meilland International as it is known in the trade, is in Southern France, and has been in business even longer than we have at Conard-Pyle. The century-old business is still owned by the Meilland family, and has seen ups (mostly) and downs (a few) over its remarkable history. I could, and probably will, write more about this later.
Conard-Pyle has been involved with Meilland since the 1930’s, a partnership which has brought a long string of popular roses to the U.S. and throughout the gardening world. Beginning with the Peace rose in 1945 and continuing to more recent introductions like the Drift® series of groundcover roses. Over the last 30 years I have been fortunate to be a part of this very unique relationship that has brought American gardeners a lot of great varieties over the last eight decades.
I had my first encounter with Meilland International back in the late 70s when I was in college. At the time, the company was experiencing an extraordinary growth spurt. I did not know it, but this was the era when they almost single-handedly created the cut flower industry in South America while being one of the dominant players in Europe.
I was working on my Masters thesis at the time. I was researching the status of the cut rose industry on the French Riviera. As surprising as it may seem, there was such a thing as a vibrant cut flower industry there before the oil crisis of the mid 1970s, due to the perfect climate and a great consumer demand after World War II. When I did my research, it was at the tail end of that golden era where growers could make a good living harvesting two crops of flowers a year. But I digress.
So I visited a lot of these growers, the local horticulture research stations, the flower markets, the wholesale florists, and of course the most famous place of all, the headquarters of Meilland International. At that time, Meilland was located in what I consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, Cap d’Antibes, which also happened to be located less than 5 miles from where I grew up. They had their main offices there, as well as their breeding and testing greenhouses for cut flowers. Their breeding and testing for garden roses was 100 miles away in the heart of Provence where it is still located today.
I was very familiar with their location, having gone by it countless times growing up, by bike, then by moped, and later by car. It felt very strange to finally walk onto this property that was known by the locals to be a very important place in the world of flowers, especially since their next door neighbor was the Barberet-Blanc Company, who was the number one carnation breeding company in the world at the time.
I don’t know if that first visit left an impression on them, but it sure did on me. It was a remarkable operation, on top of its game, and things were humming the day I was there. It was mid-spring and the greenhouses were full of magnificent roses of all colors and shapes. Sonia, Kyria, Prive, Red Success, Visa just to name a few. These names probably don’t mean a thing today, but these were the roses that dominated the fresh flower market during that period. All were in full bloom in the greenhouses among thousands of seedlings that were competing to become as popular one day. The gorgeous scenery both outside and inside the greenhouses was distracting, and it was difficult to concentrate at times. But what impressed me the most that day was that their General Manager took the time to show me around and give me a complete tour of the facility. He also made sure that I would spend some time with Alain Meilland himself, who personally explained in great detail the history of the industry in the area, and how his family was such a big part of it. He also gave me a perspective on the whole cut flower industry worldwide. I ended up spending more than one hour with him that day, and being totally under the spell of his charisma and passion. Both men were also genuinely interested in my research, which was focused more on the economics of Horticulture, and they provided me with a treasure trove of information that made me look really good at graduation time. Prior to the meeting, I thought I’d be lucky if I spent an hour there. I ended up spending most of the morning and almost missing my next appointment.
When I left, I remember thinking that I would not mind working with these people after I graduated. Little did I know what was in store for me.