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Mourning Glories

The best place to see historic roses in the state may be at a Gold Rush-era cemetery in Sacramento.

April 25, 2002|ROBERT SMAUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"A bud on earth, a flower in heaven."

--Inscription on an 1872

headstone in Old City Cemetery

SACRAMENTO--Laid out in 1850 on a sandy hill just outside of town, the Old City Cemetery is the final resting place for some of California's Gold Rush luminaries, such as John Sutter Jr., E.B. Crocker and Mark Hopkins, as well as three governors and roughly 25,000 other early residents. The cemetery recently has become a final resting place of sorts for many equally illustrious old roses. The Historic Rose Garden here is home to almost 200 heritage roses gathered from other old cemeteries and similar historic sites in California.

Roses have long been associated with cemeteries. Chiseled rose blossoms frequently decorate old headstones. Rosebuds with broken stems were used on children's markers to signify a life "nipped in the bud." Rosebushes were often planted on graves in loving memory of mothers, grandmothers and other deceased family members. Many of these old roses have survived the ages because they are tough and drought-resistant, unlike their modern descendants.

Most are big, mounding shrubs or climbers, classed in the rose world as Chinas, Teas, Noisettes, Ramblers, Polyanthas and the like. At Old City, they have been planted in abandoned family plots, where they grow next to marble tombstones, crypts and monuments. The weathered, lichen-covered stone makes an incredibly dramatic backdrop for these blowzy antique blooms.

There is perhaps no better place in the state to see old roses because they are not crowded together as they are in botanic garden collections. Instead the roses have room to grow to their natural size, to spread their wings, so to speak. At the Historic Rose Garden, the old shrub roses can become huge, billowy mounds--flowering haystacks--breathtaking when in bloom. Long sprays of blossoms arch over the monuments and perfume the air in spring and summer, though they peak right about now.

Unlike modern cemeteries, the plots in Old City have always been privately owned and maintained. Only the narrow paths are cared for by the city. Each plot is typically surrounded by a foot-tall brick or stone wall, occasionally by an ornate iron fence. In Victorian times, the cemetery looked like a community garden, with the 20-by-20-foot parcels lavishly planted and tended. It's been said that the various families competed with each other to see who would have the prettiest plot. So much gardening was going on at that time that a nursery sprung up across the street to supply lawn seed, roses and the weeping "mourning cypress" planted in many of the plots.

But by the mid-1900s, most of the family plots had been abandoned and the old cemetery was no longer being maintained. Plots were vandalized and the beautifully carved tombstones toppled and broken. In 1986, Dr. Bob LaPerriere, a retired dermatologist, concerned over the degradation of this historic landmark, organized the Old City Cemetery Committee to protect and preserve the stones and monuments. With help from the local sheriff's community service Work Project Program, the grounds were again maintained, at least minimally.

In 1995, Fred Boutin, a former botanist with the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, was in town giving a talk on old roses when someone took him to see the few surviving heirlooms at Old City. After walking around the 28-acre site, he said he thought, "What a perfect place to preserve old roses," though at the time the grounds were pretty barren. "It was basically weeds and dirt," he recalled--the city was naturally reluctant to do any work inside the privately owned plots, even though most were abandoned long ago.

The Historic Rose Garden was created, and volunteer gardeners were encouraged to adopt a plot and plant it, knowing that should the family reclaim the plot for a burial, the plants would have to be removed. Barbara Oliva, the rose garden's coordinator, said that about 120 volunteers work in the garden each year. Native plant enthusiasts, a perennial plant club and an iris group have also taken over sections of the cemetery, so it is again looking like a colorful community garden, filled with flowers and activity.

LaPerriere and the Old City committee have started the California Historic Cemetery Alliance (www.califhistcemeteries.org) in an effort to preserve other old cemeteries. Many old California cemeteries have heirloom roses hiding in them, and almost 200 of these pre-1900 plants have been collected and planted at Old City. "It's a good cross-section of what survives at old cemeteries," said Boutin.

Some of the survivors, "almost 25%," he said, are so old and obscure that they cannot be identified, let alone named. In those cases, they are given working designations like "No. 42," "12th Avenue Smoothie" or "Half Moon Bay Yellow." But the preservationists were able to identify 100 or more of their finds and even discover many of their old names in period catalogs and references.

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