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Old roses smell like sweet success

Open the page to 'America's 10 Most Romantic Public Rose Gardens' in the current Roses and Romantic Garden Flowers, a national publication, and you'll see that Heirloom Roses is numero uno.

To give you something to judge the honor by, the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park is No. 10 in the book, published in New York City. Sandwiched in between are rose gardens across the United States. Some were started on lavish estates decades ago, if not more than 100 years ago.

Heirloom Roses, near St. Paul, is giving people a fresh look at 'old garden' roses.

The garden started with the 'A' greenhouse in 1987; now owners John and Louise Clements have made it to the end of the alphabet, with each greenhouse filled to the brim with different roses.

The success of the business grew much like the concept: Instead of grafting one rose onto the roots of a fast-grower, do it the old-fashioned way let the rose grow on its own roots. Seems simple enough, but most rose growers don't want to wait that long.

The Clementses sank their roots into their own root roses. That means Heirloom starts the rose-growing process from cuttings and causes them to root.

Duffy Knaus drove from Eugene the other day just to see the early flowering roses at Heirloom's display gardens (there are nine gardens, by the way). Knaus shrugs her shoulders at what possessed her to buy another rose after recently paying off the bill for three others she bought in the catalog. She had a lovely moss rose in her clutches and couldn't stop sniffing the fragrant 'Robert Leopold.' She called it the 'best-smelling rose I've ever smelled in my life.'

I wonder to myself how one could ever decide which rose gets first place in a garden full of incredible fragrance and beauty.I wander around saying to myself: 'Oh, this is nice.Mmmmm, how wonderful. No, this is even better.' Only a job in a chocolate factory could rival the euphoria.

Heirloom Roses is the love child of the Clementses. John is the imaginative, intuitive thinker. Louise loves people and old roses.

'My love for roses changes,' Louise says. 'I love the old roses, and then I fall for the new things. One rose is my favorite one year and then É I'm very fickle.'

Louise is still amazed by John's foresight 16 years after he visited England: While standing in David Austin's Wolverhampton garden of old roses, he proclaimed: 'This is where the United States is going to go. This is what we're going to do.'

The Clementses already were the largest wholesale grower of miniature roses in the Northwest. When they began selling the old garden roses, sales increased 50 percent every year for three solid years. Today, Heirloom has blossomed into a million-dollar company.

When world-renowned expert Austin decided in about 1997 he wasn't interested in marketing the rose'Jude the Obscure,' it meant the shrub rose would be relegated to virtual obscurity. However, John Clements asked if he could have the apricot-colored rose. It's now said to be one of the most perfect roses because of its intoxicating fragrance, beauty and bloom.

Other businesses are trying to replicate what the Clementses are doing, but their breeding program seems to keep them steps ahead of the rest. John Clements is a matchmaker, overseeing the cross-pollination of thousands of roses a year. It requires meticulous record-keeping and a keen eye for which roses might make perfect parents.

From that cross-pollination, the Clementses develop 20,000 seedlings. Making the cut is tough. Only one or two will be chosen for market three or four years later. That is how the rose 'Louise Clements' was born. It continues to be a consistent top seller.

You don't have to buy a thing to enjoy walking around Heirloom's gardens along the Willamette River, a few miles from Champoeg Park. About 25 minutes from Portland, you'll find old roses, English roses, hybrid perpetuals, modern roses, miniatures and rugosas. They sell for $14.95.

No, you don't have to buy any of them, but you will be tempted.

'Your Northwest Garden with Anne Jaeger' airs at 7 p.m. Saturday on KGW (8). Contact Jaeger at www.gardengal.tv.