At one time a requisite for any self-respecting landscape of a certain size, the formal rose garden has largely gone the way of coal-fired hothouses and the use of arsenic to combat slugs. Among the most labor- and cost-intensive of any type of planting, complicated rose beds became rare after World War II-induced labor shortages ended the golden age of horticulture. But the Philadelphia region is still home to a few of these horticultural relics, one of which is almost hidden in the back of the Barnes Arboretum.
Surviving plans from 1958 show that the garden here was once planted with unusual species of roses from around the world, rare antique European cultivars, and early hybrids from China, as well as hundreds of newer varieties. In Barnes Arboretum tradition, it was a true teaching collection, representing each geographical location where the rose is found in nature and each step on the evolutionary path between the original species and the many thousands of cultivars available today.
In the 1990s much of the surviving original collection was replaced with a variety of modern hybrid tea roses, reflecting the changing taste in American gardening. This trend was a further blow to the existence of rose gardens. The hybrid tea rose is one of the most finicky and overly-engineered varieties, possessing almost no disease or pest resistance and relying on a complicated and expensive chemical regimen to survive. Although its five-inch blooms are spectacular, the typical hybrid tea is today considered a poor choice for most gardens.
Barnes gardener Rachel Burlington has been working in the rose garden for two years, and has valiantly risen to the challenge of caring for the rose collection. At times this involves acts of desperation like dragging a Shop-Vac out to the garden to suck up fallen rose leaves, which can carry Black Spot disease. But her research has identified a number of robust plants from the original collection still in the garden, and she hopes to someday be able to return to the Arboretum many more of the documented plants from Laura Barnes’s era.
More information about the Barnes Arboretum:
Image credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Roses (detail), c. 1912