Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cemetery Roses

I wrote this article in April 2007, but forget if it was published in either 'Colorado Gardener' or The Rocky Mountain News. Enjoy, John


Old cemeteries would seem to be unlikely havens for hope and beauty, but in between those old weathered headstones stirs the perennial allure of "Cemetery Roses". Long extinct in home gardens, these living treasures have been preserved in cemeteries to be found, catalogued, given "study names" as work unfolds to discover their true identities, and propagated by rosarians to insure their survival for generations to come.

A great many of the Old Roses we see in catalogs and cherish in our gardens were discovered in cemeteries dating to the 19th and early 20th centuries. In my dozen years of work at Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, which opened in 1890, I found and catalogued 77 varieties of Old Roses, with only thirteen being identified. The rest continue to bear their "study names" like "Fairmount Red" and "Fairmount Proserpine" and "Austin Pink Damask", which a few of are in commerce at High Country Roses in Utah.

"Cemetery Roses" endure many decades of neglect and abuse, testaments to their toughness and will to live, making them perfect choices for modern, low-care, water-wise landscapes. And since they grow on their own roots vs. being grafted onto a foreign rootstock as are most modern roses we see for sale, they will bounce back from hard freezes, severe droughts, or over-jealous weed eaters. Most are shrub roses though some are climbers and ramblers perfect for swathing a fence or arbor in fragrant Victorian decadence.

Hungry eyes will eat up their sultry reds and magentas, plus a whole spectrum of pinks and even a few pristine whites. And an eager nose will relish a Whitman’s Sampler of spicy perfumes, the classic "Old Rose" scent, plus ones reminiscent of pine needles, tea, or violets. Most "Cemetery Roses" are once-blooming Gallicas, Albas, Damasks and Hybrid Chinas that glory in late spring or early summer, but the Teas, Chinas, Noisettes, Bourbons, and Hybrid Perpetuals that were found in a great many Gold Rush era California cemeteries, bloom repeatedly from spring through autumn, and even in winter in mild regions like Florida.

Sadly, as many old cemeteries are being bought up by large corporations eager for profits at the expense of cultural heritage, these wonderful roses and perennials are being destroyed purposefully with herbicides to "reduce overhead" by leaving only sod alive. Since many Old Roses found in cemeteries and now in commerce once again were introduced as long ago as 1100 AD, right up through the Middle Ages and the birth of America, why not give them welcome homes in our 21st century landscapes to help insure their survival for many more generations to come?

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