Election Section

Celebration of Old Roses at El Cerrito Community Center By JOHN McBRIDE Special to the Planet

Tuesday May 10, 2005

The 23rd annual Celebration of Old Roses will be held Sunday, May 15 from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the El Cerrito Community Center on Moeser at Ashbury. Sponsored by the Heritage Roses Group, the event is free. 

The center of the hall will be filled with cuttings of roses donated by members and guests, and sold for 25 cents a cutting at the end. Tables ranged around the hall will hold books, rose memorabilia (plates and hats painted or stenciled with roses), and foodstuffs such as rose jelly and honey gathered locally. Vendors such as Vintage Gardens (Sebastopol) will have potted roses; the celebration also features plants complementary to roses such the species geraniums (shown by Robin Parer) that root gracefully around roses. 

Miriam Wilkins, who has raised roses up the hill for the last half century, will conduct as usual the concluding raffle. 

Preceding the Celebration on Friday and Saturday is a conference “California’s Rose Heritage” (registration details: www.heritagerosefoundation.org). Attendance is expected to reach 200, with speakers from across the country. The focus of the conference will be the roses of California, beginning with the natives (Rosa Californica), proceeding through those of the mission era, and particularly those brought to the state during the Gold Rush and which now form a “rose lode” in the Sierra foothills. 

The mid-19th century represented a time of intense cross-breeding of roses. Around 1800 British and French explorers such as Robert Fortune and Joseph Banks, brought back from semi-tropical Asia, the “China” roses that re-bloomed. Until then, all roses in Europe flowered only in the spring, with only a slight repeat in the fall for a few rare types (Quatre Saisons). These tenderer roses from Asia introduced a radically different habit, foliage and palette (other-than-pink) into the European cultivars. 

The history and typology of roses is at least as complicated as that of wine. Consider the vast changes in the landscape of California wrought by Agoston Haraszthy, the Hungarian who imported batches of grapevines cuttings from all over Europe in the 1860s, and whom we have to thank for Zinfandel. Roses were imported, by ship, from the East and from Europe to such emporia as Shinn’s Nursery in Niles (Fremont); settlers carried cuttings across the continent: such treasures as species rose Harrison’s Yellow. These roses were planted in the Sierra foothills; as those towns declined, the roses were abandoned. 

Naturalized, they survive in odd corners of gardens and fields. One of the most curious is Fortune’s Yellow Double, also known as the San Rafael Rose or Gold of Ophir: a thorny tangle that can cover a shed or ascend a redwood, putting forthcoming a massive display of “golden amber flowers, burnished with rose red and copper.” Over the last 40 years these roses have been re-discovered and propagated, especially as developments threaten their habitat. 

Indeed, a movement of rose “rescuers” has sprung up to take cuttings or move plants if the bulldozers are approaching; in Texas, more boldly, they call themselves rose “rustlers.” Recently a party from the Heritage Rose Group went through Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and found many roses no longer in commerce. Even more unusual roses have been found in the Sierra foothills and the coastal range, in cemeteries, abandoned gardens and along the roads. A rose in point is Grandmother’s Hat which I have grown for the last 10 years. Miriam Wilkins recollects finding it as “Anna Wellman” fifty years ago on Richmond Ave. in El Cerrito in a garden where the houses were being demolished; Barbara Worl found the same rose in Palo Alto, and for some year it bore her name. It has been called Mrs. Sharman-Crawford, and then Cornet after being seen in a German garden by these two California ladies. Now it is the prolific and beloved Grandmother’s Hat, a heavily scented, pink hybrid perpetual of the 19th century, with a parentage yet to be discovered. Recently, I planted this shrub rose in the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association garden on Durant Street where it will form part of an antique garden. 

Roses are far more than the “hybrid teas” of the mid-20th century: the meager and rather fussy “antler” plants, with fancy pointed buds of many petals and curious colors, roses that required much winter trimming and summer spraying. Roses are immensely diverse as to habit and cultivation: a major resource for a flowering and foliage landscape. This Sunday in El Cerrito, meet the intense amateurs and nursery-folk who cultivate this plant.