Portland’s Rose Garden Blooms with History
Boasting spectacular views of the city skyline and - on a clear day - snow-covered Mount Hood, Portland’s International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park is a refuge from a hectic world.
But during World War I, the rose garden offered a refuge of a different sort: It was a preserve for plants that European hybridists feared might be wiped out in the bombings.
This summer marks 100 years since the start of World War I in 1914, and while the rose garden did not become a reality until after the U.S. entered the war in 1917, it was proposed not long after the war began.
As early as August 1915, an Oregon newspaper reported that Jesse A. Currey, a Portland rose hobbyist, was working to gain support for his idea of a municipal rose test garden from American Rose Society President Wallace R. Pierson and Portland’s George L. Baker, then the city’s parks commissioner, and later its mayor when the garden was approved in 1917.
Currey got help from his friend George C. Thomas Jr., a rose enthusiast from Philadelphia and a captain in Army Air Service who flew in France during the war. In June 1918, the Oregonian newspaper called Thomas "America’s greatest amateur rosarian," and reported that before he went to war, he left instructions that "as soon as the Portland garden was established, it should receive his two most promising seedlings."
In early 1918, the garden began receiving plants from growers in England and Ireland, as well as Los Angeles, Washington and the Eastern United States.
The garden is an example both of Oregon’s support for the war through its natural resources - including food from its farms and timber from its forests - and as part of the era’s City Beautiful movement, said Chet Orloff, director emeritus of the Oregon Historical Society.
"Through that whole period, we are really putting a lot of effort, at least this city is, into creating a greater parks system," said Orloff, who is president and director of Portland’s Museum of the City. "The rose was such an important part of the persona of the city, and this was a great way to contribute to an international effort to preserve something."
Portland has long been nicknamed the "City of Roses." A decade before the test garden was proposed, 20 miles (32 kilometers) of Portland’s streets were lined with rose bushes for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Two years later Portland began its annual rose festival.