Magazine article Sunset

Heritage Roses: Many of the Plants Brought West by Pioneers Are Still Thriving, Thanks to Efforts by Dedicated Rosarians

Magazine article Sunset

Heritage Roses: Many of the Plants Brought West by Pioneers Are Still Thriving, Thanks to Efforts by Dedicated Rosarians

Article excerpt

Before the turn of the century, Mendocino, California, was an isolated community, connected to the rest of the world only by ships that plied the Pacific. But that didn't stop Daisy MacCallum - daughter of one of the area's original settlers, William Kelley - from obtaining roses. Many of them arrived on her father's supply ships to adorn her gardens in Mendocino and Glen Blair, east of Fort Bragg. MacCallum was a generous woman, and as the years went by, she gave cuttings of her roses to anyone who wanted them. Now, more than 100 years later, only 6 of her original 140 roses still live in the MacCallum House garden in Mendocino. But many descendants of those first plants thrive around old homes and in abandoned gardens.

Stories like MacCallum's abound in the West. When pioneer families came here by wagon on the Oregon and California trails, or by ship around Cape Horn, many carried their favorite roses with them. They protected the plants as lovingly as their other prized possessions - sometimes even sacrificing their drinking water to keep the roses alive.

Heritage roses - old roses that have survived since those times - can still be found growing in communities from Arizona to Oregon. Dedicated rosarians like Miriam Wilkins and Erica Calkins (see page 80) have made it their mission to save and perpetuate this diverse group of plants with names that run from the humble 'Adam' to the exotic 'Duchesse de Brabant'.

Organizations such as the Heritage Roses Group, founded by Wilkins, document the plants and work to locate, identify, tend, and renew them. At the same time, more growers are offering heritage roses (see sources on page 82), making it easy for gardeners to plant some living history.

Rescuing old roses in California

"I FELL IN LOVE with old roses 35 years ago when I bought my first home," says Joyce Demits. "I discovered they were the roses that survive in deer country." For more than three decades, she and her sister, Virginia Hopper, have been finding and preserving heritage roses.

The sisters have traveled up and down the Mendocino coast, scouting for plants and gathering' cuttings at abandoned homesteads. "Sometimes we would happen upon a row of rose bushes in full bloom partially covered by brush," says Demits. "Suddenly, we could 'see' a fence line. Of course, there was nothing left of the fence they bordered, or the home."

Demits and Hopper have documented nearly 400 varieties of heritage roses growing in Northern California. In the mid-1980s, they established the Heritage Rose Garden at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, where visitors can view almost 50 varieties. The sisters also started a local chapter of the Heritage Roses Group.

Alice Flores, another aficionado, joined in local preservation efforts about 12 years ago. "I became fascinated with Mendocino's heritage roses because they're so beautiful and have wonderful fragrance," she says. "These tried-and-true roses are disease- and drought-resistant." Flores started identifying and mapping plants, locating about 50 sites in town where at least one historic rose grows.

Sadly, not everyone appreciates the value of these roses. "People see an old plant in their yard that hasn't been cared for and they rip it out," says Flores. She has helped persuade some homeowners to rejuvenate their old roses instead.

Thanks to the work of these women, Mendocino's historic roses are sure to live on. The three rosarians propagate and sell the plants through their mail-order nurseries. An endowment established by Hopper and Demits funds the Heritage Rose Garden, which also receives support from the Mendocino County Heritage Roses Group.

Tracking pioneer plants in Oregon

Appreciating roses must be in her genes, figures Erica Calkins of Oregon City, Oregon, since her grandparents were rose lovers too. But it wasn't until six years ago, when Calkins began studying pioneer history and the Oregon Trail, that her fondness for old garden roses really blossomed. …

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