Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vintage Roses: A Living Museum

Zephirine Drouhin covers a trellis bench in our cottage garden in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Many years ago, when I was creating my very first rose garden, I discovered a wonderful nursery where I could indulge my love of old garden roses.  My love affair with Zephirine Drouhin and Cardinal de Richelieu, two of my favorite bourbon and gallica roses respectively, began with my first order of roses more than two decades ago from Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol, California.

My first rose garden was small and I could only fit a few of the vintage beauties in the narrow area where roses thrived in that garden.  When I moved to a larger home with a larger yard and a better environment for roses, I moved them and they grew happily alongside the many roses that had been rooted and hybridized by Mike Lowe, who provided the other roses that filled that rose garden.

A decade later, when Steve and I married and planted our first rose garden in Newburyport, once again I looked to Vintage Gardens for the beautiful old garden roses that were well-represented among the more than 280 roses we eventually cultivated there.

Roses growing in the shade, under pine trees, behind our waterfall in our Massachusetts garden.
In our New England garden, roses thrived in some of the most difficult conditions roses can experience on the planet:  scorching, humid summers, frigid winters, the floods of early springs, and then of course, only someone who truly "loved" roses would even try to grow them in the shade, under evergreens!   Yet, the hill behind our water garden and koi pond was covered with double red and pink Knock-out Roses, Jacob's Coat, and The Fairy (not visible in this photo).
 New Dawn and Peggy Martin  at the entrance to our formal rose garden in Massachusetts
Fast forward another decade and my husband was offered a position in California's Napa Valley. We left our beautiful New England garden behind to move to a location where we could garden and grow roses for 10 months of the year.

Knowing that we would be living in the Napa Valley, I was excited at the prospect of making a trip to Sebastopol to personally choose roses for my new garden but when I went to the nursery's web site I was shocked and dismayed to learn that the nursery was closing just as we were relocating to the area.

On the web site, I found links to the Friends of Vintage Roses and joined.  If we couldn't hand pick the roses that would someday grace our garden, at the very least, Steve and I could offer some financial support and volunteer to help preserve the collection.

The Friends of Vintage Roses is a group of dedicated volunteers that grew out of a similar group of rose enthusiasts who were regular volunteers at the original Vintage Gardens nursery for many years.

Gregg Lowery, Curator of the Rose Collection*
Vintage Gardens was the physical embodiment of Gergg Lowery's and Phillip Robinson's shared passion for all roses but especially the rare old garden roses.  Their labor of love eventually resulted in a collection that at one point consisted of 5,124 named varieties of roses that comprised the most extensive collection of vintage roses in the world.

Rose stock from Vintage Gardens was shared with botanical gardens in both the US and abroad, and was also provided for DNA studies both here and inFrance and Japan.  Dr. Yuki Mikanagi at Kobe University in Japan used roses from the Vintage Gardens for her research into rose pigment research and roses were also provided for the the Noisette and Tea studies conducted by Dr. Nancy Morvello at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida.

The collection is regarded as the most comprehesive and complete collection of  Hybrid Perpetuals, Bourbons, Gallicas, Hybrid Chinas, Teas, Noisettes, and Chinas in North America.  The old Hybrid Teas include an extensive group of Pernetianas that is probably unmatched in any other single public or private garden.

After the retail nursery closed in 2014, in order to preserve and maintain the extensive collection of roses that was established by Gregg Lowery and Phillip Robinson, the Friends took ownership of the roses and created a non-profit organization to in effect, create a living museum of the roses.

The long term goal of the Friends is to once again have the roses growing in a setting that can be open to the public and at the same time able to provide specimens for research and for other other botanical gardens around the world.

The volunteers continue to meet once or twice a month at the garden's current location on Pleasant Hill Road in Sebastopol for "Dirt Days", where they work under the guidance of  Gregg Lowery, a luminary in the rose world and one of the founders of the original collection.  Gregg has remained closely involved with the roses and currently serves as the curator for the collection.  Volunteers assist with pruning, weeding, feeding, tagging, and inventorying the many rare and historically important roses.

For volunteers, working with the vintage roses is an opportunity to ask questions and learn about rose culture from one of the most experienced and knowledgeable rose gardeners in the world.  For Steve and me, being immersed in such historically significant roses and having an opportunity to listen to the conversation of experienced rose gardeners is both educational and inspiring.  As much as we know about rose pruning and cultivation, working next to such talented volunteers is always such a treat for us.  We always come away with pearls of wisdom from those who have done this for decades longer than we have. 

Volunteers gather with Gregg, ready to fertilize, weed, prune, and tag the roses.
As important to us as the educational aspect is, what I truly enjoy about these days is the opportunity to actually see and in many cases, smell, some of the rarest of the rare....  roses that few of the large public botanical gardens can boast among their collections.  To experience these roses is to experience history.

The current location of the collection is still in Sebastopol and many of the roses are cultivated in containers, in part, because it's easier to protect them from gophers and other critters, in part to make it easier to feed and water them, and in part to make it easier to move the collection, alluding to the possibly temporary nature of the current location. 

Shakespeare Garden, an Eglantine Rose*
The collection is regarded as one of the best and most extensive in the world and has provided cuttings of rare roses to botanical gardens around the world as well as DNA samples of roses for research into the history of the different lines of old garden roses. Indeed it is  treasure that deserves to be supported and maintained.

Every time we volunteer, we see roses that we might never see in any other venue, roses so rare they may exist in only a handful of gardens around the world. The rarity and importance of these roses can't be understated.

If you would like to support the maintenance of these wonderful roses you can send a financial donation to The Friends.  Help in the garden is always needed and assistance on "Dirt Days" is welcomed graciously.  You can contact Carolyn Sanders, director of volunteers, through the Friends web site to register and to get the updated schedule of dirt days and events.

A fundraiser is currently scheduled for this coming Sunday, May 3rd, to help offset the financial costs of maintaining the roses.  The fabulous garden at Terra Bella Vista, a privately owned collection of 450 roses owned by Susan Feichtmeir will be open to the public from noon to 4 PM.  A $20.00 donation per person will gain you entrance to the garden and the silent auction of artwork and roses that is scheduled to take place from noon to 2 PM.  All funds will benefit the Friends of The Vintage Roses' costs to maintain the Lowery-Robinson rose collection.  You can see the entire flyer HERE.

The entire flyer is available on the Friends web site.*

Do check the Friends website for other upcoming activities.  Click on "Upcoming Events" on the group's Home Page.
Carolyn Sanders, Volunteer Coordinator
Volunteer activities are under the direction of Carolyn Sanders who schedules the "Dirt Days" and sends out communications and reminders to volunteers.  She is also volunteer extraordinaire and has been for some time.

Many of the volunteer activities require no specific knowledge of roses (weeding the beds and pots, for example) and Carolyn, Gregg, or one of the other volunteers is always avaliable to answer questions.

If you ever wanted to learn about roses and their care and cultivation, volunteering at the Friends rose garden is an excellent opportunity to be able to not only help out this worthy cause but to feel comfortable around these easy to cultivate plants.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that roses are hard to grow.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Growing in pots, in a part of the country that has been subjected to a multi-year drought,
This weekend, we worked hard to make certain that the roses were adequately tagged.  Each rose has a tag attached to it, and then another one or two handwritten (in pencil on plastic) tags is added to the pot.  It's amazing how often these get displaced.  Accurate identification of the roses is crucial to the integrity of of a collection of this many rose specimens.

Tags are placed both on the roses and in the pots, to include the name of the rose cultivar, classification or group, and year the rose was introduced.
The chance to interact one-on-one with a rose expert of the caliber of Gregg Lowery is a special perk for volunteers.
Some of the roses are in the ground but many are clustered in pots.  One of our tasks last fall was to dig up and put shrubs that had been attacked by gophers.  While some volunteers were weeding and pruning, other volunteers added fertilizer and tags to the pots. The pots are not ideal, but they will protect the roses until the beds can be adequately fenced against rodent pests, an expensive proposition for a garden this size.
Some of the roses currently in bloom at the garden.  The fragrance is indescribable.

One of my favorites of the roses in bloom this past weekend.  I meant to go into the row between the pots and check the label and we were so busy, I forgot!  Maybe one of the of the volunteers will help me out.  The sun washed out the color somewhat...  the subtle soft shades of rose and mauve brushed with yellow and ivory at the base of each petal were absolutely stunning.

While we were there this weekend, blooms were everywhere.
Comtesse de Rocquigny, a Bourbon rose in the collection*

Gourdalt, a Bourbon rose in the collection*

Visit the Friends of Vintage Roses.

*Photos courtesy of the Friends of Vintage Roses
All other photos copyright Cathy Rose


  1. Wow, great post Cathy. I have a post coming up where I say how I prefer the old roses, but have no where around me to see (and smell) old roses. Even all the gardens on my street that had 100 year old rose bushes have removed them. All the rose gardens I visited have modern roses. I will add your link in my upcoming post since you have photos of the old roses along with valuable information on them. Roses are one plant I have limited experience even though I have a good friend that is a rosarian. He works with all hybrid tea roses.

  2. Donna, Thanks so much. Just to stand among the roses is an experience. I look forward to the day they have a permanent home and are able to restore the garden to it's former glory and open it to the public again.

    1. Donna, as we continue to volunteer with the Friends,I'm certain that I'll have additional photos and posts about the collection. Like you, I adore the colors, fragrances and the history of these amazing shrubs. I once had a conversation with someone who planted thousands of spring bulbs... which only bloom once each spring, and for such a very short time. I commented to them, how you can you love a tulip and not love an old garden rose? They had no answer....

      Whenever we hybridize to gain something, we lose something. The modern roses may re-bloom with abandon, but nothing can match the fragrance and glorious color and size of the blooms of the OGR's, which is why our garden had plenty of both!

  3. It's not just the colour, the fragrance or the shape and clustering of the petals that I find attractive, it's the names as well; a French name makes a plant so much more attractive IMO.

    Glad to see you both alive and well

    love Helen

    1. I so agree, Helen. A majestic blossom deserves a majestic name. That is one of my main complaints about modern hybrid teas. Names like "Big Momma" and "Girls Night Out" lack a certain cache.

  4. How wonderful to see the vintage roses and enjoy their aroma and beauty. Wishing you well with your new garden Cathy.

  5. I do like the old Roses but have a tendency with a small garden to go for the David Austin English Roses which generally have a longer flowering period whilst retaining the olde world look. Great post Cathy.


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