looking back

‘Looking Back’: Rose Garden

By Kinen Carvala

If it was once a well-known fact that roses could not be grown in San Francisco, how is there a flourishing rose garden in Golden Gate Park?

People have been growing roses for thousands of years. The first modern hybrid rose that bloomed consistently all season instead of only blooming once was bred by Jean-Baptiste Andre Guillot in France in 1867, according to a Penn State publication.

Before the San Francisco Rose Society started in 1941, conventional wisdom in the early 20th century was that roses couldn’t thrive in San Francisco’s sandy soil with windy and foggy summers. Garden nursery employees dissuaded customers wanting to grow roses and suggested other plantings like evergreen shrubs for better outcomes. What was a rose enthusiast to do?

In 1941, there were rumors of a man in the Sunset District somehow managing to grow “roses the likes of which had never been seen hereabouts,” according to an account from Alfred Stettler, an early president of the San Francisco Rose Society, in the “History of the San Francisco Rose Society.”

This 2020 view of the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park is looking north toward the intersection of Fulton Street and Park Presidio Boulevard. Photo by Michael Durand.

A September 1941 announcement in the SF Examiner called for rose enthusiasts to meet in the SF Public Library to see if there was interest to form a local rose society. One of the speakers at the meeting was George McDonough, who had a rose garden at his Sunset District home which hosted the first meeting of the new San Francisco Rose Society on Dec. 7, 1941. In spite of that day’s attack in Pearl Harbor, the 20 members and friends discussed rose pruning, fertilization, and fungus and insect control.

The first known local rose show was held by the San Francisco Rose Society on April 26, 1942, in the Palace Hotel with roughly 2,000 attendees, including Angelo J. Rossi, mayor of San Francisco at the time. There were 14 different classes for competitors to submit roses (e.g., Class 3 required one light pink bloom, in contrast to Class 4’s one medium pink bloom and Class 5’s rose pink bloom. Any three pink roses could be submitted together in an arrangement for Class 13. Other classes were for blooms of red, yellow, blended color or no color restrictions).

An extension of Park Presidio Boulevard to the JFK Promenade (then-named Main Drive, recently JFK Drive) became the Rose Garden in 1961, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

The Jan. 8, 1961, dedication of the one-and-a-half-acre rose garden had 200 attendees, according to the SF Chronicle, including:

• Mrs. Nat (Helene) Schoen, president of the American Rose Society (ARS), resident of Vancouver, Washington.

• Martin J. Martin, ARS Northern California-Nevada District director, who presided at the ceremony.

• George Christopher, mayor of San Francisco, who planted the first rose with a gold-plated shovel.

• Tula Sarantitis Christopher, mayor’s wife, who was presented with a rose bouquet.

Roy L. Hudson, assistant superintendent of parks, designed the garden, but was unable to attend the ceremony. The San Francisco Rose Society also had a rose garden committee, which helped with the layout of the several dozen rose beds, soil preparation, selections of rose varieties and the writing of letters to nurseries and rose growers requesting plant donations, according to the “History of the San Francisco Rose Society,” which also quoted Merrill Butler: “I only hope that George McDonough … can know about this, because a rose garden in Golden Gate Park was his dream for many years.”

Though the San Francisco Bay Area has some wild roses, like the five-petaled purple California Wild Rose (Rosa californica) and Baldhip Rose (Rosa gymnocarpa) according to the California Native Plant Society, the Rose Garden has a range of garden roses with different sizes, shapes and smells bred through cross pollination of other rose varieties. Roses in the garden include the Queen Elizabeth and the Eureka. The Eureka rose was an All-American Rose Selection from 2003 with a plant patent applied for it. All-America Rose Selections (AARS) was an association created by the American rose industry in 1939 to test rose varieties, according to founding member Jackson & Perkins Company. The Golden Gate Park Rose Garden served as a testbed for roses in a cool, moist climate, according to local station’s KALW podcast about the park.

January rose pruning demonstrations used to be held in the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park before switching to the Rose Garden. To promote new growth and a succession of flowers throughout the growing season, pruning is important to remove dead or diseased stems, according to Oregon State University. Rose stems too close together can become damaged, spreading disease.

With financial support from the estate of Alfred Fuhrman, the garden was rededicated on July 8, 1984, to celebrate the garden’s refurbishment with new trellises and lattice work fences to support climbing plants and new framework for the rose beds.

In 1986, the rose was designated as the United States’s national floral emblem in a Congressional joint resolution and President Ronald Reagan’s proclamation.

A plaque by the garden’s southeast corner, next to the base of the tall park map on the north side of JFK Promenade has the inscription:

All America Rose Selections, Inc.

Public Rose Garden Award

Presented to Golden Gate Park

Rose Garden 2008

for contributing to the public

interest in rose growing through its efforts in maintaining an

outstanding public rose garden.

According to the SF Recreation and Park Department’s website, the garden can be reserved for weddings.

The Rose Garden can be reached from its north entrance at the southeast corner of Fulton and Park Presidio Boulevard or from its south entrance on JFK Promenade. Roses typically start to bloom in mid-May and continue to bloom throughout the summer.

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