Saving an Historic Rose Collection

National treasures sometimes come in small packages. They’re delightful…but oh so easy to lose. So it is with a private garden of antique roses that colors and scents a gentle 2.5-acre slope in Sebastopol, California.

Some 3,500 different rose varieties are collected here on a plot with a sweeping vista of the Coast Range. They span the entire history of the rose. One finds many of the ancient wild or “species” roses here, as well as old Albas, Gallicas, Damasks and Moss roses, some of which Caesar and Shakespeare knew. The collection is especially rich in China, Tea roses and Hybrid Perpetuals, which bear romantic and mysterious names that reflect the French 19th-century mania for roses grown by Empress Josephine at her chateau at Malmaison. Finally, of course, there are Hybrid Teas bred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many of them impossible to buy or even find today.

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Gregg Lowery and his partner, Phillip Robinson, painstakingly gathered this collection over 30 years. They hunted for roses in old cemeteries, farms, homesteads, and nurseries. Then they undertook the painstaking research needed to identify the foundlings. In 1984, somewhat early in their years of collecting, they established a nursery on the state highway leading to Sebastopol. Vintage Gardens, as they named it, enabled them to earn a living off their passion and sustain their prodigious assemblage of plants.

Many public gardens contain far more roses. Yet despite its small footprint, the collection at Vintage Gardens is unmatched anywhere in North America in the scope of its diversity. Only the collection at the Europa-Rosarium Sangerhausen in Germany matches it.

“It’s the most comprehensive collection of roses of all types of classes,” says Stephen Scanniello, author of 20 books about roses and former curator of roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. “Nothing has been assembled like it in any public garden or private garden in the world, with the exception of Sangerhausen.

Gregg Lowry

Vintage Gardens has helped restock many old rose gardens that have been destroyed by disease or lost to changing tastes. A decade ago, curators of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon drew from Vintage Gardens to restore the garden of Hybrid Tea roses chosen by William Randolph Hearst in collaboration with his architect, Julia Morgan. Planted in the 1920s and ‘30s at the Castle, most of these roses had been out of commerce for a half-century.

“Our garden could restore every significant garden of historic roses in the country. On that level it is unique and very special,” Lowery asserts. “There isn’t anything else like it.” On an aesthetic and cultural level, roses have entwined themselves with human history more than any other flower, and the collection in Sebastopol “is a record of human endeavor and passion,” he says. “It’s a gene bank of human creation.”

It is also in danger. Vintage Gardens had to shut down its roadside location in 2006. And its mail-order business will close at the end of 2013. Competition from big box stores, the recession and, to some extent, the waning of interest in older roses have put the endeavor down for the count. And the collection has suffered accordingly. Blackberries are suffocating parts of the garden, and pocket gophers have chewed away the roots of many plants. The collection, which at one time or another has harbored 5,000 varieties of roses, is badly in need of an inventory.

White-Vintage-RosesIn 2011 Lowery (Robinson moved on to other interests several years ago) was within 20 days of losing the property to foreclosure when some friends stepped in. They purchased the site and agreed to lease the garden for $1 a year to a group of former customers and friends who call themselves Friends of Vintage Roses. The group, formed in 2012, now owns the collection and is seeking nonprofit status to raise money to preserve the trove that Lowery and Robinson assembled. For now, donations may be sent to the Heritage Rose Foundation at www.heritagerosefoundation.org.

In addition to harboring genetic material that could one day prove useful, Lowery’s roses are windows into human history. On tours of the garden, Lowery often speaks of people and events that were notable when a particular rose arrived on the scene. “He’ll tell you that this rose was popular when Mozart was composing,” says Scanniello, and in his view, the roses of Sebastopol “are heirlooms and pieces of social history, museum pieces…they are van Goghs.” ■


Andre Stepankowsky is an award-winning writer and city editor of The Daily News of Longview, Washington. He tends two rose gardens and lectures about roses old and new.