Sonoma County ~ A Vintage Rose ‘Terroir’ Where can you buy fragrant, vintage roses?

Garden Valley Ranch fragrant vintage roses


By Jane Rogan Dwight

The rose is arguably the most poetic of flowers. It is the hallmark of Spring, bursting on the scene in April and May, boasting singular beauty and metaphorical richness in every phase, from youthful bud to mature bloom. Thorns protect it, fragrance and color attract insects who live in symbiotic relationship.

Of course, not all roses are created equal.

In Sonoma County, we are known for our passionate horticulturists. Our most famous horticulturist, Luther Burbank, cultivated “Joseph’s Coat” and the “Burbank” rose – among many other plant varieties. Burbank called Sonoma County “the chosen spot of all this earth.” Those who know their roses are familiar with Rayford Reddell’s legendary work at Petaluma’s Garden Valley Ranch.  At the height of his career, Reddell’s most fragrant roses attracted such celebrities as Princess Diana, Caroline Kennedy and Martha Stewart. Garden Valley Ranch is now owned and operated by Jessica and Justin Yau, a brother and sister team who acquired it a year ago from Mark Grim. The Garden Valley Ranch property has a long and interesting history dating back to the 1850s.

Further north, nestled in the well-traveled Russian River wine appellation just off Westside Road, Jan and Michael Tolmasoff have been growing some of the most fragrant roses in the world on some of the richest soil in California since 1976. The birth and growth of their garden business, Russian River Rose Company, is another captivating Sonoma County story.

I had the opportunity to visit with Jessica at Garden Valley Ranch and Jan at Russian River Rose Company, with a guest appearance by husband-Michael. Here is some information for our readers.

Garden Valley Ranch

Jessica answered the bell at her petit garden gate in tall muddy boots and a big floppy hat. She was watering; a job that takes hours on her five-acre ranch. White doves fly out of the bell tower and demand I look up to notice the mid-19th century farm buildings, small and large, in the center of what feels like an old Victorian town complete with train depot.

Garden Valley Ranch barn with white roses

Garden Valley Ranch barn with white roses

We walk past rows of 5-gallon bare root roses on our way to the potting room, a place that takes a page out of the Pottery Barn catalog: Sonoma County rustic-chic. Jessica offers me a cold Yerba Matte from the cooler and tells me about the antique building elements in the room. Wood planks from original buildings were recycled to make attractive shelves and tables. Drawings and water colors depicting the 1850s train depot are framed and hung. The natural, indirect light adds to an atmosphere where I could spend hours happily potting plants.

From there Jessica takes me to the Carriage House. It is a beautifully restored, 2-story building that seems to be made for Sonoma County event parties. The wide barn doors slide apart revealing a porch that overlooks an expanse of the front garden.

On this afternoon Jessica gives me the complete tour. We made our way to a lovely, Victorian-inspired bedroom suite, where brides can dress; and to the quaint train depot, where grooms may dress. The depot especially made me envious of a quality of life we no longer see in public transportation. The approach to the wedding gazebo is surrounded by what will be hundreds of fragrant white rose bushes in May. The secret garden behind the gazebo features arbors of climbing roses and an exquisite fountainhead from The City of Paris department store in San Francisco.  Set in the middle of one of the gardens behind the Carriage House, is a large, meandering koi pond.

Where have all the roses gone?

In her articulate, soft-spoken way, Jessica tells me about the declining fate of the American rose industry. She refers to a Washington Post story, published in February and written by Damien Paletta. It is subtitled, “How the rose trade lifted Columbia and nearly erased an American industry.”   Yes, Columbia. Once a thriving business in the U.S., mass rose cultivation moved to Bogota, Columbia in the 1980s. Infamous in the 1980s for the growth of violent drug cartels who shipped cocaine by the ton to the United States, the Columbia drug culture provided jobs, supported villages and infected North America with its products. In the effort to curb the drugs coming from Columbia, the Bush administration passed new trade laws to aid Columbia in starting up its own rose production. It was successful. These roses, the ones you buy in grocery stores, are being shipped by the millions to sate the American appetite for low priced bouquets (Damien Paletta, “In Rose beds, Money Blooms,”   The Washington Post; February 10, 2018.)

In case you haven’t noticed, or don’t know any better, the roses from Columbia are not fragrant. So, if it’s fragrance you’re missing in your bouquets, specialty roses from Garden Valley Ranch and Russian River Rose Company are two places to buy in Sonoma County.

Environmentally conscious growing

As Sonoma County rose farmers, both the Yaus and the Tomalsoff’s are deeply committed to natural, sustainable and pollinator-friendly practices. Both grow their roses outdoors without chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers [check with RRR].  The results of working in partnership with Mother Nature are stunningly beautiful, fragrant flowers.

The Garden Valley Ranch offers classes and special tours, family event days and an inspiring wedding venue. They will also sell cut rose stems and bouquets from the ranch. It is a beautiful, quick drive to the property, which is situated in your backyard, off Stony Point Road in north Petaluma.

Garden Valley Ranch field of roses

Garden Valley Ranch field of roses

Garden Valley Ranch – 498 Pepper Rd, Petaluma • (707) 795-0919 • Private tours and nursery pick-ups by appointment. Please email .
First Friday tours are open to the public at $10 per person.  The first tour is on Friday, May 4.

Russian River Rose Company

Russian River Rose American Pillar Rose

Russian River Rose American Pillar Rose

Refined culinary rose water, rose oils for perfume and the roses themselves are some of the fragrant products of Russian River Rose Company. Owner, collector and cultivator, Jan Tolmasoff, has taken time out of her busy day to talk to me. She is prepared. Everything about her open, welcoming personality, natural organization and clear-thinking is evident upon our meeting. She sets the table with charming, Victorian china, silver spoon and linen napkin. She gives me an option of teas, but I choose the rose tea (of course). Outside, a nursery worker is industriously arranging pots of roses and preparing beds for new layers of manure. Jan sees a bright blue, swallow-tailed butterfly hovering over her ‘bees and butterflies’ garden. She is ecstatic. Her clear, round, blue eyes emanate her personal passion for the stewardship of Russian River Rose Company she and her husband, Michael, have worked for 42 years.

When the Tolmasoff’s purchased the Healdsburg property in 1976, they knew they wanted to grow grapes. Pears and French Prunes were planted over 15 acres, but due to the high concentration of pesticides required to grow pears they made the decision to take them out. The hardy prunes stayed and produced for them. One day, using a $100 gift certificate she had from her Grandmother, Jan decided to buy and plant roses to beautify the vineyard. She poured over the catalog, “Roses of Yesterday and Today,” and found herself attracted to the vintage varieties not only for their beauty and fragrance, but for their stories. “Every rose came with a testimonial,” she tells me with a meaningful look. She purchased 15 roses and never looked back.

Russian River Rose Company now carries 650 varieties of roses and – Jan is excited to tell me – 150 varieties of Irises. She tells me about her roses, naming their names, the way one would speak of dear friends. The personalities and connections of her garden are as important to her as the blooms themselves. Jan chooses the varieties for their beauty, fragrance and versatile growing patterns. She also chooses them for how well they flourish in our Northern California climate.

Russian River Rose famous rose covered arches

Russian River Rose famous rose covered arches

The Bulgarian Damask Rose

Jan tells me about the trip she and Michael took to the famous Kazanlik, Bulgaria Rose Festival in 1996. There, in the Valley of Roses, horticulturists have been growing ultra -fragrant Damask roses for centuries. Production is extremely work intensive. The Damask rose blooms only once a season, and those blossoms must be picked immediately in the very early morning before the sun dries the fragrant oils in the petals. The perfumes made from Bulgarian rose oil have graced royalty throughout history; [For more information, go to –].

Michael Tolmasoff is a Chemical Engineer. Prior to their visit to Bulgaria, Michael became interested in learning to produce rose oil perfumes. He now produces small batches of rose oil and fragrances each season. RRR offers it for sale in their online store and at the garden. If you’re interested, buy soon. It sells out very quickly.

Mothers Day - Margie and Mike Wilson

Mothers Day – Margie and Mike Wilson

RRR Monthly, Seasonal Events

Almost every month of the year Jan features a different experiential workshop. May is a time for families and friends to experience the beauty of the garden – especially on Mother’s Day. Generations of families have been visiting RRR on Mother’s Day when blooms are everywhere. During Memorial weekend, Jan and Michael offer ‘tea and memories.’ People may write their wishes and tie them to the wishing tree. Jan then takes the wishes and buries them beneath the garden. In October the Tolmasoff’s host Bulgarian singers and offer their new batch of fragrance, which has been aging for 5 months. I am told there is tea and hand-cranked sorbet.

If you would like a unique experience full of beauty, be sure to consult Russian River Roses website to see what is happening during the year.

Russian River Rose Company –1685 Magnolia Dr., Healdsburg • (707) 433-7455 • Throughout the year Jan features a different workshop. May is a time to experience the beauty of the garden – especially Mother’s Day & Memorial weekend. In October the Tolmasoff’s host Bulgarian singers and offer their new batch of fragrance, aged for 5 months.


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