Eleven years ago, two Silicon Valley neighbors faced rather different problems. Rooted in California’s Mission past, the 150-year-old Santa Clara University was expanding. New construction left the university with a bit of an eyesore along the highly visible half-mile of El Camino Real, the historic highway that forms its eastern border.
Just a freeway exit north, along Interstate 880, the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, created by the expansion of San Jose’s Mineta International Airport, had a dilemma of its own: where to put two hundred climbing roses. Because this new public rose garden lies in the airport’s flyway, Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibited building supports for the roses to climb.
A chance connection between university and rose garden solved both problems, providing a unique, and beautiful rose display for the public to enjoy, as well as a rich horticultural resource waiting to be tapped.
A Half-Mile of Roses
Today, some 250 kinds of climbing roses cover the half-mile-long wrought iron fence, effectively providing both a screen for the university and a delight for joggers, university students, and rose lovers from all over the world.
Where else, for example, can you see some of the latest examples of the rose breeder’s art, such as the spicily fragrant, apricot-colored rose, ‘Spice So Nice’, bred in 2001, growing right next to a nineteenth-century French rose like ‘Annie Vibert’? Or see nearly all the forms of Rosa banksiae in cultivation today? Here, there are no admission charges, no set hours, nor special permissions needed to view them.
“There are roses on fences in other places, but none of them are as large and diverse in variety,” said the late Mel Hulse of the Heritage Rose Garden. “Stanford has one that is longer, but the roses are all the same variety. To my knowledge there’s no other place like this.”
Rosarian Bill Grant, American editor of Botanica’s Roses, has seen rose gardens both great and small on four continents; he agrees: “It’s unique. And you can see it as you drive by.”
A Perfect Fit
The person who made the connection that resulted in what some call the “wall of roses” can be found on any Wednesday at the Heritage Rose Garden in San Jose. There you’ll see Marianne Sugg hard at work, pruning, weeding, planting, watering, deadheading, and spreading mulch, as well as teaching and supervising other volunteers—generally doing whatever needs to be done.
For more than a decade, she and Hulse formed the backbone of a corps of volunteers that has cared for a collection of nearly 5,000 roses, including more than 3,000 species and cultivars. The garden is a joint venture of the City of San Jose, the Friends of Guadalupe River Park & Gardens, the Santa Clara County Rose Society, and the South Bay Heritage Rose Group.
For Sugg, it’s an extension of a lifelong love affair with roses. She has planted roses in gardens in Idaho, New Hampshire, Arizona, Florida, and now California. She and husband Joe came to the San Jose area in 1995. He became the head of buildings and grounds at Santa Clara University, a small Jesuit liberal arts college in the heart of Silicon Valley. After a few years in the area, she began volunteering at the Heritage Rose Garden, and one thing led to another.
“Mel told me about having access to some climbing roses,” Sugg said. “They had been offered to the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, but they didn’t want them because some were once bloomers. He was in a bit of a quandary about them.”
At the same time, the university was constructing a new facilities building. The president was concerned that this was going to be highly visible. As a facilities yard, it would have construction materials, compost, and vehicles stored within sight of passersby on El Camino. There was a wrought iron fence, but it was rather bare. My husband was wondering what to put on it.
We had climbing roses with no place to go and a fence that needed covering. This seemed like a perfect fit. Joe agreed that roses would be lovely. Santa Clara is famous for its gardens, and has loads of roses. The president thought it was a good idea. We all got together and decided it would be beneficial for everyone.
Establishing the Collection
The list of climbing roses had been selected earlier by Ed Wilkinson, then curator of the Heritage Rose Garden. Some had been planted in the garden but had quickly outgrown their allotted space. Cuttings were taken to Vintage Gardens rose nursery in Sebastopol, where they were rooted and grown on until large enough to be planted.
In 1999, the roses were ready, and the university dug the holes for them. Volunteers from the Heritage Rose Garden planted the roses and initially helped with the pruning. Today, the university takes care of the roses, while the Heritage Rose Garden “curates” the collection, replacing non-performers and any roses that remain bush-like instead of climbing. Although there is no formal agreement between the university and the Heritage Rose Garden, both sides say they’re happy with the way things are going and have no plans to change anything.
Something Always in Bloom
Santa Clara University is California’s oldest college. Besides the climbers on the fence, roses are planted in the gardens adjoining its historic church, Mission Santa Clara de Asis. A past president of the university, the Reverend George MA Schoener, was an amateur rose breeder of some note in Oregon and Santa Barbara in the early part of the twentieth century. Most of his roses have been lost, but two are still grown today. ‘Arrillaga’ is a large, full pink hybrid perpetual. ‘Schoener’s Nutkana’ was bred from Rosa nutkana, a wild rose native from Northern California to Alaska.
The campus is set in an older part of the Santa Clara Valley, with broad tree-lined streets and well maintained gardens. As you approach the university from Highway 880 to the south, the climbing roses are the first things you see as you travel the long approach to the main entrance. The fence loops around the university’s eastern and southern boundaries. Besides the corporation yard, it encloses athletic fields, and buildings.
It is an easy twenty-minute walk to tour the rose fence collection. Most rose-lovers will take much longer, however, as they stop to admire the flowers. The fence is set back about twenty feet from the street, with London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia), shrubs, and lawn running the length of the strip. The street is public, and the ground flat and well paved, making it a popular destination for walkers and joggers.
Eight-foot-tall stuccoed pillars, spaced forty feet apart, support the seven-foot tall black wrought iron fence. Four roses are planted at ten-foot centers in each forty-foot section. Once-blooming roses alternate with repeat bloomers along the fence, with each pair of the same color. Something is always in bloom, although peak viewing times are in the spring and early summer.
An Encyclopedia of Roses
Like its parent collection at the Heritage Rose Garden, the roses on the fence offer a broad sampling of the many different kinds of roses grown through the ages. Naturally climbing species roses, climbing sports of hybrid teas, hybrid musks, teas and Chinas, old-fashioned hybrid perpetuals and Noisettes, and ramblers are all to be found here. There are many roses now classed as large-flowered climbers. European breeders are well represented, and there are American-bred roses from just about every decade in the twentieth century.
Flutterbye (‘Wekplasol’), for example, is a 1996 yellow and pink blend, created by American breeder Tom Carruth, that really does resemble a flight of bright butterflies in mid-air. Next to it is one of the earliest roses to be called a hybrid tea, the bright cherry red ‘Reine Marie Henriette’, bred by Levet of France in 1878. On the other side of Flutterbye is the climbing form of the light pink, repeat-flowering ‘Picture’, a sport that appeared in 1942.
The fence is home to several Rosa gigantea hybrids. Originally from Burma and southwestern China, R. gigantea is the ancestor of many of today’s hybrid teas and was used by Father Schoener in his rose-breeding efforts. This species offers tremendous vigor, huge blooms, and shiny, drooping foliage. Among its many offspring is the well-loved ‘Belle of Portugal’, a large-flowering, peachy pink beauty that was bred in Portugal in 1903 and much planted throughout California in earlier days. Next to it on the fence is its white-flowering sport, ‘Belle Blanca’. In bloom, their interwoven branches appear as one plant that has both pink flowers and white ones.
Elsewhere is the look-alike offspring of ‘Belle of Portugal’, ‘Susan Louise’, which offers more repeat bloom than its parent and is more restrained in its growth habits, making it more suitable for today’s smaller gardens on both counts. A more recent R. gigantea cross is ‘Twilight Mist’, a lavender-colored rose introduced in 1995 by Phillip Robinson of Vintage Gardens.
One of the more spectacular examples of the hybrid gigantea group is the richly-colored ‘Follette’ (also known as ‘La Follette’ or ‘Senateur Lafollette’), which covers itself in spring with hundreds of warm pink blossoms and has proven itself a real traffic stopper.
The Rosa banksiae group is also well represented on the fence. It, too, comes from China and is known for its thornless stems, evergreen foliage, and massive early spring display of clusters of tiny flowers. Perhaps the best known of its members are a double white-flowering version (Rosa banksiae var. banksiae) that smells of violets, and a pale yellow double (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’) that is ubiquitous in milder areas of California. Other Banksia roses on the fence are the rarely seen single white version (Rosa banksiae var. normalis), and ‘Fortuniana,’ a fragrant larger-flowering white hybrid (R. banksiae × R. laevigata) that dates to 1840. ‘Fortuniana’ has been used as an understock for grafted roses in warm climates but is well worth growing for its own sake. ‘Purezza’ is a 1961 Italian introduction noted for its repeat bloom. All are absolutely disease-proof and worth adding to any garden in the milder parts of the country.
Rescued Roses and Old Stand-bys
Another noteworthy group of roses growing on the fence are those rescued by modern-day “rose rustlers” from such places as pioneer cemeteries and old homesteads. Besides their beauty, disease resistance, and general toughness—they have often survived decades of neglect—many offer a fascinating glimpse into the days when California’s Gold Rush wealth brought the latest in Parisian roses to remote corners of the state.
Most rescued roses are given study names until they can be identified. “Legacy of Dr M D Hinman” is a climbing tea rose that was found in a Gold Country cemetery; it is now believed to be ‘Chromatella’, a yellow French rose that dates to 1843. The vigorous “Castro-Breen Musk Climber,” a fragrant white hybrid musk, was found in another Mission town, Central California’s San Juan Bautista.
A white hybrid musk that is increasingly popular in the rose world is “Secret Garden Musk Climber,” which California rosarian Joyce Demits found growing in Jamestown in the Sierra foothills. No one knows its original cultivar name, but its vigor, hardiness, disease resistance, continual bloom, fragrance, and beauty recommend it for wider use.
Large-flowered climbers range from old standbys like the reliably red ‘Blaze’ (1932, Jackson and Perkins) and the gaudy red/ orange/yellow blend, ‘Joseph’s Coat’ (1963, Armstrong) to the 1999 red-and-white-striped rose, Fourth of July (‘Wekroalt’), or another Jackson and Perkins introduction, ‘High Society’ (‘Jacadyna’), a pink one from 2004.
You’ll even find roses that are usually known only as understocks for grafted roses, including the dark red ‘Dr Huey’, (Thomas, 1920) and “Dr Covell’s Carrotrooted Understock,” a found rose with dark pink single flowers.
Minimum Care—Maximum Return
In contrast to the dozens of volunteers who maintain the Heritage Rose Garden, there is only one man tending the roses on the fence. As one of just eleven gardeners at the lushly-planted, 106-acre campus, David Perez is responsible for much more than the roses growing in his section. There really is not much time for a lot of fussing with them. Other than a once-yearly pruning, it’s not a lot of work, Perez admits. “The roses practically take care of themselves.”
Perez has been a gardener at the university for twenty years. He got his start with roses at the age of thirteen, when he began working weekends for a local landscaper. His current home garden is shady, and runs to ferns and camellias. His love and knowledge of roses is evident, however, in the abundant flowering display—due, in part, to the careful way he ties the canes into a well-spaced fan shape—at the best angles to promote lots of flowers.
Perez’s rose year begins in January with the major pruning, which takes him all month and the first week of February, working full time by himself. It’s something he enjoys. “When I’m pruning, I’m in heaven,” he says.
Perez starts by thinning the rose canes, removing the larger, stiffer ones and those growing at an awkward angle. He keeps the pliable, tender ones since they are less apt to break when he ties them to the fence. He has no set number of canes to keep, but lets each rose dictate its pruning: small ones get a light thinning, whereas bigger ones are pruned more heavily.
He starts at one end of the fence and works his way down one side, then comes back and prunes the other side. Once the canes have been thinned, Perez ties the loose canes to the fence with green plastic horticultural tape. He likes to interweave neighboring roses so that the colors overlap. Later in the season, he gives a light deadheading to the roses following their flowering cycles.
He fertilizes twice a year, in January and July, using a commercially available, timed-release fertilizer with an N-P-K ratio of 15-15-15. What the roses love most, though, is plenty of sun and water. They get both in abundance, growing in a valley once famed for its gardens and orchards. Long, hot summers and mild winters provide ideal growing conditions for a wide range of roses. Drip irrigation, timed to go off at night, waters the roses with recycled water, an important consideration in a time of increasingly scarce water supplies.
The roses are remarkably free of disease. Perez sprays them once a year, just as the buds develop, to foil aphids and the ants that follow them. He uses Merit 75 WSP, a systemic pesticide that mimics nicotine sulfate, a naturally occurring substance found in tobacco and petunias. It has a low toxicity to mammals; in fact, its active ingredient is also used in flea-control products for dogs and cats.
Perez prefers to weed by hand or with a hoe among the roses, and makes sure that gardeners in the adjacent athletic fields steer clear of the roses when they apply herbicides.
Perez has his favorites among the roses. He’s fond of ‘President Herbert Hoover’, a 1930 hybrid tea that looks like an Hawaiian sunset. Another is ‘Mme. Jules Bouche’, a 1938 climbing hybrid tea that was covered in large, fragrant white, double flowers in December. It’s easy to locate: it is the first rose growing at the north end of the fence.
‘Glenn Dale’ (1927) is another large-flowered, fragrant white that Perez likes. Bred by Dr Walter Van Fleet, it looks like a white twin of the famous pink ‘New Dawn.’ It is variously classified as a hybrid of Rosa wichurana, a large-flowered climber, or a rambler. Although bred by Henry Dreer, ‘New Dawn’ is a sport of one of Van Fleet’s better-known hybrids, one that he named for himself: ‘Dr W Van Fleet’ (1910). Several specimens of ‘New Dawn’ can be seen on the fence as well.
Perez says he enjoys the public reaction he sees while he’s at work on the roses. “Sometimes you see people walking by, and they’re not exactly smiling,” he said. “Then they see the roses and they brighten up immediately.”
If You Should Like to Visit . . .
The Santa Clara University One-Half Mile Climbing Rose Fence is located at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. Take “The Alameda” exit from Highway 880 and travel north along The Alameda until the road forks. The right fork becomes El Camino Real. The left fork continues as The Alameda. You may go either way to view the rose fence, which runs along both streets as they border the campus. A popular time to visit is the annual spring celebration held at the nearby San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, usually near the end of April, when tours of the fence of climbing roses are offered. For more information about the fence of climbing roses, the San Jose Heritage Rose Gardens, or the spring event, go to www.heritageroses.us or www.helpmefind.com/roses (look in the “Gardens” section for The Santa Clara University One-Half Mile Climbing Rose Fence).
One frustration for rose aficionados visiting the fence is the lack of labeling in this relatively young garden. The website www.helpmefind.com/roses includes the names of the roses planted, but offers no clues to their locations on the fence. The curator of the Heritage Rose Garden maintains a list that keys the roses to the small numbered plaques found on the top iron rail just to the left of each pillar. Discussions are underway about labeling each rose, but, for now, those interested in obtaining a copy of the curator’s list can send a stamped, self-addressed, business envelope to: San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, 438 Coleman Avenue, San Jose, CA 95110. Write “Climbing roses list” on the outer envelope.