Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Step Back in Time: The Heirloom Roses of Wyck

For history buffs who also happen to be avid gardeners, there are few things more exciting than a visit to the oldest rose garden in the country at the Wyck House. Our visit there was a highlight of our recent vacation.

The buildings and gardens of the Wyck estate sit quietly behind a plain picket fence in the heart of the Germantown section of Philadelphia. 

The house has an extensive history of its own that long predates the garden. While we briefly admired the architecture, historic grape arbor, original smoke and ice houses, and vegetable gardens and greenhouse, it was the rose garden that stole the show for us, not for the fragrant flowers, which had blossomed and faded weeks before our visit, but for the sheer richness of history planted in the garden's beds and along its walkways.

The rose garden was cultivated and maintained by several generations of Haines descendants and ultimately abandoned and allowed to grow untended for at least a generation, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. But for that, the heirloom roses would likely have been replaced with their more modern counterparts. The garden remains the only one in the area, in fact, that was not replanted with modern reblooming roses.

Jane Bowne Haines
Now restored to as close to its original design as possible, the Wyck rose garden was designed and planted in the early 1820’s by Jane Bowne Haines, a native New Yorker who married Philadelphian Reuben Haines III. The roses she planted have survived through three subsequent generations and most are still growing where she first planted them nearly 200 years ago.  

Although reportedly unenthusiastic about moving to Philadelphia, once settled into her new home (new to her but already vintage at that point), Jane set about turning an ordinary kitchen garden into an extraordinary rose garden. With an interest in roses and a flair for horticulture and landscape design, she created an elaborate garden with multiple beds, pathways, and more than 30 different heirloom roses. 

Interestingly, she left in place roses that had already been growing there, so there are roses in the garden that actually predate the beginning of the 19th century. 

According to Nicole Juday, the rose and landscape curator for the Wyck gardens,  some of the roses date back to the time of Empress Josephine. She has been reviewing some of the papers in the extensive collection of documents maintained by the Wyck Association and has found documentation that some of the roses originated with Empress Josephine and passed through no more than three sets of hands before they were planted in the Wyck rose garden where they can be seen and enjoyed today.

Jane was a pregnant mother of five when she was suddenly and unexpectedly widowed. The daughter she gave birth to a few months after her husband’s death inherited her passion and skill for horticulture.

Jane Reuben Haines
Named for her parents, Jane Reuben Haines was a semi-invalid who never married and spent her entire life at the Wyck House. Inheriting her mother’s knack for horticulture, she maintained the gardens throughout her life. Following her death in 1911, the estate passed to her niece and nephew, Jane Bowne Haines II and Caspar Wistar Haines II.

While the heirloom roses in most other gardens were being replaced with the hybrid repeat bloomers, the historically significant roses of the Wyck garden were allowed to survive by virtue of benign neglect for nearly 40 years following the deaths of the third Jane and her brother Caspar, who had maintained the gardens during their lifetimes.

Eventually, Mary Haines, the elderly widow of Robert Haines, the oldest nephew of Jane and Caspar who had inherited the property from his aunt and uncle, enlisted the aid of rosarian Leonie Bell to once again restore the garden to its previous glory. It was at this point in the 1970’s that the estate became a museum.

Unless one is able to appreciate the history contained within the fences that surround the home and garden, few people are likely to be as excited as we were to be visiting an historic rose garden in early July.  

 Since the roses in the Wyck garden are heirloom roses that bloom once, early in the season, unless you visit the gardens during late May or early June when they are fully in bloom, most visitors find little (aside from the perennials scattered among the beds) to hold their interest in the rose garden at other times of the year.

Seeing the roses at the Wyck home was, for us, truly exciting, irrespective of their bloom cycle. While we would very much like to visit again when the gardens are at peak bloom, both Steve and I were thrilled just to be able to stand in the midst of the four parterres that form the rose garden and look at the shrubs whose origins date back, in some cases, more than 200 years.

An occasional faded blossom could be found among the rose hips that were forming prominently on every shrub. One rose had a spray that, while certainly past its prime, still managed to fill the air around it with a heavy rich perfume. We could only imagine how intensely beautiful the fragrance and color must be when the garden is at its height in the spring.

Of particular interest to us was the famous gallica rose, the Lafayette rose, thought to have been brought by General Lafayette during a visit to the Wyck home in the summer of 1825. 

While I’m certain that many people look at the unassuming shrub and wonder what all the fuss is about, we were deeply moved to be able to see this shrub, as rare and as precious as many fine artifacts housed at the Smithsonian, and a living piece of history.

The tuliptree in the yard at Wyck.
One other plant grabbed my attention as soon as we entered the main gate. Next to the house stands a tuliptree of indeterminate age but enormous height. We are newly acquainted with tuliptrees so it was of particular interest to us and I was pleased that I was able to recognize this very old and mature specimen which is probably as old or older than the Wyck House itself.

Just as the Wyck House and Garden is an important part of Philadelphia’s rich heritage, the women of Wyck are an important part of the study and profession of horticulture. The legacy of Jane Bowne and Jane Reuben Haines is a living history of rose culture in America. 

Jane Bowne Haines II
Jane Bowne Haines II transformed her innate love and talent for horticulture into the first horticultural college, the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, which she established in Ambler, Pennsylvania a year before her death. 

Currently known as the Ambler College of Temple University, the college offers associate, baccalaureate and masters level programs in landscape design and architecture, horticulture, and environmental design as well as certificate programs in horticultural therapy and environmental sustainability.

The front facade of the Wyck home. Trellises support climbing roses and some clematis vines.
A grape arbor extends from the left side of the Wyck house.
The grape arbor shelters a pump which was used to irrigate the gardens. A trough leads to the vegetable garden.
Vintage pump used to irrigate the gardens at the Wyck estate.
Shallow, brick-lined shallow trough or trench that directed water from the pump to the vegetable gardens.
Original ice house at the Wyck estate.
Original smoke house at the Wyck estate.
The rose garden, taken from the entrance to the front yard from the gate near the ice house.
The back of the house opens to the garden in the front yard. A grape covered trellis extends across the back of the home.
A rose covered trellis covers the side entrance into the garden.
This massive magnolia, Magnolia soulangea, stands next to the famed Lafayette rose.
The magnolia apparently had two main trunks originally. It is thought to have been planted in the early 1820's when the original Jane Haines built the garden.
The Lafayette rose is visible in the right lower corner of the photograph.
The rose that encircles the base of the magnolia and grows up the tree is the native species rose R. setigera. It still had a few fading blooms during our visit earlier this month.
The grapes on the arbor across the back of the house are thought to be the Fox variety although they no longer bloom. They likely predate the garden by many years. Seen in the foreground (middle bottom of the photograph) is the Lafayette rose.
One of four parterres that comprise the rose garden.
A bed of heirloom roses, each showing fat rose hips, edged with a boxwood hedge.
Rosa rubrifolium with tall, pale yellow blooming hollyhocks.
Some of the prettiest rose hips we saw were these burnished orange ones of the Rosa rubrifolium.
The other rose hips that really caught our eye are these deep burgundy/mahogany ones of the Rosa spinosissima, the Scottish Rose.
The Scottish Rose was enormous, at least 4-5 feet tall and almost as wide.
Perennials offered a burst of color here and there throughout the garden.
A small circular bed with purple balloon flowers and pomegranate shrub.
Close-up of the pomegranate blossom.
Tall phlox and other perennials provide bursts of color here and there throughout the rosebeds.
A blossom of Rosa chinensis, "Monthly Cabbage", peaks out from the back of the shrub.

These blossoms of "Champney's Pink Cluster" were still highly fragrant even though they were fading.
Another fragrant blossom of "Champney's Pink Cluster".
Each of the three Janes left their indelible mark on the garden. With the exception of the R. setigera, the climbing roses were all planted by Jane Bowne Haines II.
An enormous holly shrub near the entrance to the vegetable and herb gardens.
An oak leaf hydrangea near the entrance to the vegetable and herb gardens.
The vegetable garden is a working garden that produces vegetables which are sold at a farmer's market.
The tour guide told us that this greenhouse was built just after the turn of the century (early 1900's) from a kit. It stands at the far end of the vegetable garden.
The vegetable and herb gardens.
The vegetable and herb gardens.
Bee hives and cold frames in the vegetable and herb gardens. There were bee hives in the rose garden as well
We hope to return to the Wyck when the roses are in bloom. For more information about the Wyck estate or to schedule a visit, please see the links below.

Photographs of Jane Bowne Haines, Jane Reuben Haines, Jane Bowne Haines II, courtesy of the Wyck Association, used with gracious permission of Nicole Juday.
Photographs of the Wyck home and garden by the authors. 
You can read more about the Wyck Home and Garden HERE.
You can learn more about the horticulture and landscape certificate and degree programs and the history of the horticulture program at Ambler Temple HERE and HERE.


  1. I could feel the sense of history from your photos. I would love to see this garden in bloom! Could the orange flowered shrub be a decorative pomegranate? That's what it really reminds me of.

  2. Deb, that is very possible. I am querying Nicole Juday who is the landscape curator, but after looking at some pictures, I think you're right! Thanks for dropping by. ;)

  3. Love visiting these old places, there are lots of them in Ireland, it's like taking a step back in time. Thanks for sharing your pics.

  4. Pretty remarkable women who made a name for themselves in the field. I enjoyed the tour and you made me miss PA even more. I do not see ice house and smoke house everyday up here. The architecture was a plus for me. I was pretty impressed with the roses as well. History makes the place!

  5. what a thrill to be in such an old established garden with such a rich history. I love the wild rambly rose bushes and what i can see of the buildings. great post - thx

  6. That old place with its wild looking gardens reminds me of home. I just wish women still wore hats more. And I am inspired by the photos of all the brick paths. Wonderful tour Cathy!

  7. Very interesting. I live outside Philadelphia and have never been to this garden. I will have to put it on my list.

  8. Wow - fascinating post, tour, and photos, Cathy! I love the grape vine-covered trellis over the "walkway" by the house - how wonderful! The bee hives and those cold frames are fabulous too. What an amazing property and garden!

    I grew up 70 miles from Philly near Allentown, PA - I've never seen this place but I know where Germantown is and next time I'm in the vicinity I'll go check it out! Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Wow how interesting. I have to admit to having thought roses generally had a lifespan of about twenty-five years!

  10. Bridget, we love these old places as well, but the fact that it has the oldest rose garden in America made it even more special for us!

    Greenapples and Catmint, thank you both for the comments. Yes, it was a definite thrill! We are hoping to visit again when the gardens are in bloom next spring and I will take more pix of the interior and exterior architecture. The buildings are also historical marvels. We see things like this at Sturbridge Village, which is a recreation of a colonial town from that era, but this is a garden that was planted 200 years ago – it blew us away!

    Linnie, love, I was so at home there – of course, I always wear hats! And not just for gardening either!

    Carolyn, you should definitely visit in the spring when the roses are blooming. And
    Redgardenclogs, we spent many a fall weekend in Allentown when my son was in the U Mass Minuteman Marching Band – gosh I could tell you stories LOL. Definitely worth your time to travel over to see it, especially in spring. I’ll let you both know when we plant to visit again. ;)

  11. Sproutling, grafted roses do have a lifespan and in fact, many don't make the quarter century mark. But roses growing on their own roots can survive for centuries. I should have such longevity!

  12. Thanks for sharing your photos with us and the history of the garden is so interesting. There were some great lady gardeners way back then, so fascinating reading about them and all their lovely roses.

  13. Two of my fave things historical buildings and it! What a wonderful post about such a fantastic day, I particularly love the all the trellis work, the old growth and the array of out-house buildings, could you imagine if we had to still use an ice-house, thank god for modern conveniences!! Thanks for sharing =)

  14. What a beautiful space! It looks so peaceful, and full of interesting treasures. I love that the vegetable garden is still being maintained - how great that they have a sport at the farmers market.

  15. Deb, I got the official word - it IS a pomegranate, a variety from Russia that overwintered outside successfully this past winter.

    Pauline, there definitely was a love of gardening in that family, and an innate talent for it as well!

    Julia, you read my mind. As I was standing there in the sweltering heat, looking into the ice house which must have been twenty feet deep or more, all I could think of was air conditioning LOL.

    Beth, they have quite a well known farmer's market and sell honey as well. They really have restored the vegetable and herb gardens quite nicely as well!

  16. Thank you for this extraordinary story and the virtual tour! I enjoyed visiting this garden with you very much. Did you get some hips to grow roses from seed? When is the main flush of bloom?

  17. Masha, thanks so much for taking the tour with us. It is an amazingly well-preserved property.

    No, we didn't get any rose hips or cuttings or anything like that during our visit. If there had been any offered for sale, we would have purchased some, but there is not a gift shop or anything like that there.

    As for just taking some while we were in the garden, we would never have done so without permission. This is really a living museum and for anyone to just take a cutting or a rose hip without permission of the curator is at least disrespectful and probably illegal too, although my guess is that people have done it.

    The landscape curator wasn't there when we were there, so we couldn't ask about purchasing any either.

    We would not even know if a hip was fully mature and the seed ripe enough to plant, so without some guidance, it would make no sense to take hips for that purpose without knowing what we were doing.

    The main flush of bloom is at the end of May and beginning of June. We are hoping to return again over the Memorial Day holiday weekend if not this coming spring then the next. We are hoping that while we are there, they will have some cuttings for sale. They have done so in the past.

    However, during this same vacation trip, we visited the Brooklyn (NY) Botanical Garden and we purchased some rose seeds there for R. chinenis and we hope we get a couple of plants from that! ;)

  18. What a fascinating story and wonderful pics!
    Ciao. :)

  19. such an interesting place and the people that lived there and made it, I love those burgundy hips, I only discovered there was a scottish rose a few months ago and plan buying some this winter, thank you Cathy for such an interesting story, I can imagine how you felt being there, I wonder if my roses will be around in 100 years or more, Frances

  20. Frances, I often wonder about our garden in the same way, especially some of our trees. I loved those burgundy rose hips as well - I took at least a dozen pictures of them LOL. They were small as rose hips go, but looked striking against the foliage.


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