The Pageant of Roses Garden at Rose Hills Memorial Park

A sweeping walkway curves past broad beds of roses, among the 9,000 rose bushes and climbers in the memorial park; in the distance is a glimpse of the surrounding hills. Photographs by Dr Thomas Cairns, except as noted

A sweeping walkway curves past broad beds of roses, among the 9,000 rose bushes and climbers in the memorial park; in the distance is a glimpse of the surrounding hills. Photographs by Dr Thomas Cairns, except as noted

At least since the time of the Romans, who planted them in their necropolises to supply wreaths for the dead, the rose has had funerary associations. Cemeteries were among the earliest landscaped public gardens in the United States and…were felt to be suitable for combining the duties of familial piety with the pleasures of nature. Cemeteries were not infrequently conceived as horticultural showplaces…

Eric Sigg, California Public Gardens: A Visitor’s Guide

The beauty and versatility of roses as landscape plants is what makes the Pageant of Roses Garden at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, well worth visiting. Gardeners who use roses as single specimens or ragtag collections of individual named cultivars will see a different approach here. At Rose Hills, multiples of a single cultivar are planted en masse in each bed, resulting in expansive sweeps of rich color.

For more than forty years, this garden-in-a-cemetery has been regarded as one of the major public rose gardens in Southern California. Recently, a comprehensive restoration and expansion program occurred under the direction of Dr Tommy Cairns, rose curator, and garden supervisor Fred Patritti. These two rosarians have succeeded in establishing the ten-acre rose garden as one of the most outstanding in North America. Approximately 9,000 rose bushes, representing 400 different varieties, cheer visitors with their beauty and fragrance. The garden consists of eighty-four different beds, each marked by clearly visible signage that identifies the cultivars.

“We have a three-fold mission here,” Dr Cairns explained while conducting a visitor on a tour. “First, we want to promote the rose as a flower that’s easy to grow. We also are providing a showcase of roses for the public. And, lastly, because the rose is the emblem for Rose Hills Memorial Park, our goal is to create a top notch garden.”

Rosa Golden Holstein, a floribunda, is one of the 400 different selections on display at Rose Hills Memorial Park. Author’s photograph

Rosa Golden Holstein, a floribunda, is one of the 400 different selections on display at Rose Hills Memorial Park. Author’s photograph

Their success is evident from the remarkable display of vigorous, healthy roses with masses of blooms. The design here is unlike most other rose gardens. Each display bed contains at least fifty bushes of the same cultivar. The garden consists mainly of modern roses—hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, miniatures, and shrubs—with a smattering of the best of the old garden roses, including ‘Baronne Prévost’, ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, and ‘Delicata’. Some antique roses, such as ‘Sombreuil’ and ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, are trained to climb up trellises and over rust-toned rebar supports. The effect is dazzling. There are also mass plantings of some recently introduced shrub roses like Martha’s Vineyard and Cliffs of Dover.

Visitors enjoy old favorites such as ‘Peace’, ‘Mister Lincoln’, ‘Sterling Silver’, Ingrid Bergman (voted the world’s favorite rose), and Redgold. They can also view newcomers such as Veterans Honor, Diana, Princess of Wales, Betty Boop, Starry Night, Timeless, Knock Out, and Fourth of July. An entire section is devoted to the acclaimed David Austin English roses, renowned for their old-fashioned charm and fragrance. Although this display is not as large as that at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, there are plenty to see here, including Golden Celebration, Glamis Castle, Redouté, and The Prince—all in mass groupings, just as their hybridizer, David Austin, recommends for their display. Another section consists of miniature roses that have received the Award of Excellence from the American Rose Society; included here is each winning cultivar since the award’s inception in 1975.

The All-America Rose Selections (AARS) test garden at Rose Hills Memorial Park, shown here, is one of only twenty-two in the United States. Visitors can observe the test roses that are undergoing a two year evaluation (three years for climbing roses). Author’s photograph

The All-America Rose Selections (AARS) test garden at Rose Hills Memorial Park, shown here, is one of only twenty-two in the United States. Visitors can observe the test roses that are undergoing a two year evaluation (three years for climbing roses). Author’s photograph

The Rose Hills garden includes an All-America Rose Selections test garden, one of only twenty-two in the United States. These test beds are located along Rose Hills’ main driveway and garden pathway so the public can observe the roses being tested. The Pageant of Roses garden also contains a rare International Rose Trial Garden, where breeders from around the world enter their roses for evaluation. Famous rose breeders from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland, Japan, Australia, and Denmark participate in the two-year evaluation program. The only other international test site in America is in Portland, Oregon. Dr Cairns, who serves as president of the American Rose Society and North American vice president for the World Federation of Roses, was instrumental in creating this program at Rose Hills. Four large planting beds are dedicated to the international trials, where roses are evaluated five times each year for two years. The permanent judging panel consists of representatives from several wholesale rose growers, retail nurseries, and the American Rose Society, along with garden writers and the curators of other Southern California public rose gardens.

In October, rose breeders from around the world will convene at Rose Hills for a final judging of the fifty-three roses entered in the 2001-2002 trials. The results will be tallied along with those of the permanent judging panel to select this year’s medal winners.

What sets Rose Hills Memorial Park apart from many public rose gardens is the emphasis on mass plantings of each selection to create expansive sweeps of rich color

What sets Rose Hills Memorial Park apart from many public rose gardens is the emphasis on mass plantings of each selection to create expansive sweeps of rich color

History of Pageant of Roses Garden

Roses have been a significant part of the cemetery’s landscape since it was founded in 1915. The management had planted numerous roses along perimeter fences. Hundreds of climbing roses, representing sixty cultivars, made this site one of the largest displays of climbing roses in Southern California. The late John van Barneveld, a director of the American Rose Society in the Pacific Southwest District, created the foundation for the Pageant of Roses garden in 1958. Under the auspices of John D Gregg, president of Rose Hills at that time, long-range planning for a garden of roses began. In conjunction with local rosarians and rose growers, the landscape architectural firm of Cornell, Bridgers and Troller developed the formal design. Drainage and maintenance issues were addressed in the early stages of construction. Beds were dug to a depth of three feet, with drain tiles installed on the lower side. Layers of bean straw and fertilizer were spread at the bottom of each excavated bed, and the soil replaced. When the initial three-acre site was prepared, van Barneveld selected the roses and supervised their planting. The garden opened to the public in April 1959.

The garden grew in size, content, and acclaim over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jim Kirk was its curator. He gave pruning demonstrations and freely offered advice to rose enthusiasts about how to grow the queen of flowers. In 1984, the ARS Public Gardens Committee awarded its Outstanding Public Garden Achievement Award to the Pageant of Roses Garden.

Under the guidance of Cairns and Patritti, the rose garden has taken on new dimensions and a renewed mission of public display and education. One recent addition is the “Elegy Rose Garden of Remembrance”, a dramatic visual display of 5,000 red and white roses. The centerpiece is a fifty-foot circular bed planted with standard tree roses of varying heights to give the overall impression of a pyramid of alternating colors.

“An elegy garden is in the French tradition of remembrance, often with red and white poppies,” Dr Cairns explained. “We’re using roses in a classic European symmetrical design.”

Rosa 'Margot Koster' is one of several seven-foot standards trained to cascade over steel supports to create a dramatic weeping effect; here it is fronted by R. Gourmet Popcorn, a modern miniature rose hybridized by Luis Desamero in 1986

Rosa ‘Margot Koster’ is one of several seven-foot standards trained to cascade over steel supports to create a dramatic weeping effect; here it is fronted by R. Gourmet Popcorn, a modern miniature rose hybridized by Luis Desamero in 1986

Miniature roses such as red Santa Claus, white Gourmet Popcorn, and white Pillow Fight border the beds. Larger standards include the classic white Iceberg, red ‘Europeana’, and stately white Honor.

If visitors want to learn how to grow these beautiful roses in their own gardens, the staff at Rose Hills is eager to provide information and inspiration. Yearly pruning demonstrations are held in January and attract hundreds of enthusiastic participants. Every fall, Dr Cairns leads a rose care symposium and an officially sanctioned ARS rose show takes place every Mother’s Day weekend, attracting hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of visitors.

Dr Cairns is a chemist by profession, and is the Senior Scientist at Psychemedics Corporation in Culver City. His knowledge of chemistry enabled him to create a custom fertilizer for this garden. Called Magnum Grow, it consists of an 8-10-8 ratio of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and contains Epsom salts, micronutrients, a growth regulator, and soil penetrants. (It is available in twenty-pound bags through Armstrong Garden Centers.) The water-soluble fertilizer is applied monthly during the growing season and watered into the beds. The result is visibly healthy plants, clad in foliage from ground level to the top of each bush—a remarkable achievement, as anyone who has grown roses would agree.