by Aliya Hall
Janet Inada’s love of roses was first seeded by her grandmother. Inada grew up in Missouri, where her grandmother’s garden was a “glory.” Every year she would save her pension and purchase new rose seeds, which she added to her collection. She taught Inada how to propagate the rose cuttings and “gave me that gardening joy that I’ve kept my whole life.”
Now, Inada has a rose collection that would make her grandma proud. Rogue Valley Roses in Southern Oregon specializes in antique and rare roses. Established in 2002, the wholesale business has around 1,700 different varieties of roses.
Although collectors and breeders have different dates for what makes a rose antique, Inada said the most agreed upon answer is a rose bred before the hybrid tea roses (approximately before the end of the 19th century). She explained that in the early 1800s, the western half of the northern hemisphere only had white, pink or red roses for breeders to work with. China, however, also had wild yellow roses which could be bred into other colors. These roses came to the Western world in 1850, when tea smuggler Robert Fortune stole them out of China.
These roses became a hit with Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine, who bred and hybridized the yellow into more rose varieties, some of which she named after male members of her family, Inada said. Later on in the century, Victorians hosted rose shows during which they hybridized perpetuals to have bigger blooms and created the hybrid teas.
Inada added that before that, there were also ancient roses from the Middle Ages and Roman times, which can still re-bloom.
Originally, Inada didn’t set out to own a business – in fact, “never in my life had I thought I’d start a business,” she said. She attended the University of Iowa to be a writer and there met her husband, later having kids and becoming a teacher. When she retired, they bought a property that she described as a “blank canvas, a beautiful setting for gardens.” After she planted the gardens, however, she realized she had no way to maintain it.
“So I thought ‘Maybe I can take them to a farmers market and propagate them,’” she said. At the time she started, she was also in talks with a nursery south of Portland, OR, which was being sold. Inada bought the nursery and moved the 600 varieties of roses and 2,000 potted plants down to her new property. She took out a nursery license the last week of the year.
“It was a fortuitous thing,” she explained, because the Oregon Department of Agriculture had updated the amount of land required for a nursery in the new year.
Despite the challenges with COVID-19, Inada said she’s had the same experience other nurseries in Oregon have also had.
“Like any business enhancing people’s life in their homes, it’s been true for us,” she said. “People are gardening at home and buying roses and things for gardening.”
Although there have been “lots and lots of learning curves” over the years, Inada said the biggest challenge she has is with the size of inventory. She’s worked hard to develop a website designed to give a journey of discovery and light. As a former teacher, it was important for her that people learned when they came to the website, and with that how to market these roses.
“We’re trying to keep these rare roses in the world and available to people who love them and those who want to explore them,” she said.
She said that coordinating staff is always a challenge, but it’s also been rewarding to have a staff that works harmoniously together. Now that she’s 81, Inada said she has to start thinking long term about the business, but she has a young staff that she is looking to share the business profits with, as well as family members.
The business has also been rewarding because it’s given Inada beautiful gardens to walk around in and enjoy, as well as an opportunity to share the roses with people. With the fires that Southern Oregon experienced this past summer, she hopes she can offer some plants to people whose landscaping was destroyed.
Although she has many favorites, her tops are Cornelia, a hybrid musk, which was the one that got her into roses. She had rare and ordinary perennials in her garden but when a friend brought her a Cornelia to babysit, she fell in love with it. Then there’s the Dolly Parton hybrid tea, which grows by her gate. At first she didn’t think she’d want the rose because it was so big, but she let it stay because it was also fragrant.
“I let roses surprise me and I’m not terribly critical,” she said. “Some people are specific. I have started to enjoy them even if they don’t have a scent. I do say to my roses, ‘You have to be really pretty if you’re not fragrant to grow here, because what’s the point?’”