Rare rose collectors save some flowers from extinction


When you think of roses, you might not think of them as strange. You can easily find commercially grown roses at your local florist or even grocery store.

But when it comes to heritage roses, there’s a world of collectors and conservators who work hard to keep them alive amid many challenges, including commercial trends, disease, pests and climate change.

Last weekend, a group of collectors gathered in Southern California to offer some of the rarest roses in the United States. Many roses on the auction block are no longer commercially available; some were being offered in the US for the first time.

This year’s most requested rose was ‘The Iron Throne’, which sold for $350. “It’s unique because it’s not commercially available and it’s a unique color combination,” said John Bagnasco, president of the California Coastal Rose Society and president of Save the Roses! the project

The society’s annual auction, which Bagnasco noted has been going on for 22 years, is one of the ways private collectors help some of the roses disappear.

Gardeners have always depended on the weather, but recent drought conditions, water shortages and wildfires have affected some gardens across the country.

“Climate change is making it harder to grow roses,” said Steve Singer, owner of Wisconsin Roses. The heat increases the presence of spider mites and other insects, and roses need a lot of water to grow, he explained.

Beth Hana knows firsthand the damage wildfires can do to roses. Hana moved to Paradise, California in 1989 and her garden had about 1,800 roses before the 2018 Camp Fire.

Beth Hana's garden in Paradise, California was badly damaged by the 2018 Camp Fire.

The fire — the deadliest and most destructive in California history — burned Hana’s family home, along with its robust garden, including some “really rare” roses. Hana is now rebuilding the garden in her new home in Los Molinos, California, based on the fewer than 800 roses she was able to save, along with other additions. The garden has grown more than 1,500 roses, but most of them are in pots, rather than rooted in the ground.

“It will take years to get into the ground,” he said.

Several private gardeners not only grow rare roses, but also help preserve them by trading them with other collectors.

“If we think we’re the sole owner we try to put it in someone else’s hands,” said Dianne Wiley, a private gardener in Idaho. “If we lose (a variety), it could be gone forever.”

Wiley, who grows about 1,400 roses, said he has a few duplicates, but most are of different varieties, and many are rare finds.

There are about 1,400 roses in Dianne Wiley's garden.

In some cases, private gardeners and collectors help connect people with the roses they are specifically looking for. John Millar, owner of the Newport House Bed and Breakfast in Williamsburg, Virginia, contacted Bagnasco about the Joanna Millar rose, in honor of his now 92-year-old stepmother.

“I only had one in the country and I was able to send him a started plant,” Bagnasco said.

Having the plant means a lot to Millar, who said he thinks “the world” of his stepmother and said having that rose meant “living with us forever.”

Often, a rose fades away because it is out of style or fashion. A rose could once be very popular, explained Art Wade, co-owner of Rose Petals Nursery in Newberry, Florida. “But then, as with many fads, that particular rose faded and another rose took its place.”

Most roses, with few exceptions, are developed and sold until the popularity of that rose fades.

“Rose companies stop selling roses when sales drop and disappear,” Singer said. “New roses are developed every year” and “there are so many you can take.”

But there are roses that come back from the so-called extinction. An example is the “Arnold” rose, which was introduced to the public in 1893 and named after the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, where the rose’s creator worked.

In July 2015, an article published in the arboretum’s quarterly magazine covered the history of the rose and how the arboretum sought out healthy, properly identified specimens of ‘Arnold’.

Thanks to someone who was at a lecture given by the article’s author in 2017, Arnold was rediscovered.

Anita Clevenger, vice president of the Heritage Rose Foundation, recalled being in the garden of some rose collectors in Santa Rosa, California, when she saw “a familiar-looking maroon-red rose.”

“I read the tag, and it was ‘Arnold,'” he said. “We were able to trace the origin enough to believe it was Arnold.”

Arnold, a rose variety that was thought to be lost, is back.

The rose eventually spread to collectors and nurseries for distribution. Arnold is now commercially available in the US. As of late October, it has also returned to the Arnold Arboretum, confirmed Michael S. Dossman, the Arboretum’s curator of living collections.

“This is incredibly exciting, and it’s been a long time coming,” he said.

“It’s really hard to save history and things that are alive,” said Gregg Lowery, curator of The Friends of Vintage Roses, a California nonprofit that aims to preserve and share a collection of 4,000 rare varieties and roses. .

According to Lowery, individual collectors belonging to botanic gardens, nursery collections, and institutional collections are three ways roses have been preserved in the past.

As Bagnasco stated: “If the gardeners don’t do it, who will?”