Jill Severn's Gardening Column

Roses and stories


This week Gary Ritchie led a one-person tour of the Centennial Rose Garden on the grounds of the Schmidt Mansion in Tumwater. The stroll among the roses was prompted by the garden reaching its intoxicating peak of summer bloom right now.

“This rose was grown by the Romans, and probably by the Egyptians too,” he said of one plant, “so it’s classified as an Ancient Rose.” It is one of two such ancient roses in the garden, Rosa gallica and Rosa mundi.

In a written history of the garden, Ritchie wonders “How many millions of human eyes have beheld their timeless beauty? How many souls have been intoxicated by their sweet, heady fragrance?” [His story starts on page 24 of the Thurston County Historical Journal, December 2018.]

The Olympia Rose Society

The Olympia Rose Society, the garden’s creator and keeper, was founded in 1954. So millennials might consider it ancient too. But that’s why it’s important: Members of the Olympia Rose Society – two or three generations of them, depending on how you count – have created, year by year for the past 68 years, a garden legacy that deserves public appreciation.

The Centennial Rose Garden is the centerpiece of that legacy. But it is as full of stories as it is of roses, and the stories are an important part of the Society’s legacy too.

This is the second incarnation of the Rose Society’s public garden, which was created soon after the Rose Society was founded in 1954, and located at the old Olympia Community Center on 4th Avenue on the Eastside.

In the mid-1980s, that center was torn down and replaced by a new community center downtown on Columbia Street. Since planning for the state centennial was then underway, Ritchie, who was then president of the Rose Society, led a conversation between its members and the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, which now owns the Schmidt Mansion. The result was the transformation of a derelict tennis court on the mansion’s grounds into the site of today’s rose garden.

In 1988, the 100 or so rose bushes at the old Community Center were dug up and moved to their new location on the grounds of the Schmidt Mansion, and christened as the Centennial Rose Garden in 1989, our state’s hundredth year.

Our host: The Olympia Tumwater Foundation

And in case you’re new to Olympia, the Olympia Tumwater Foundation is the legacy of Leopold Schmidt, the founder of what used to be a source of good local jobs and immense local pride: the old Olympia Brewery. Many of us still miss the sound of its whistle, which marked the time for starting work, eating lunch, and going home, and could be heard throughout the Tumwater-Olympia community for many decades.

Now the Centennial Rose Garden includes not only the ancient roses, but the pioneer roses brought by settlers, and the innovations of hybridizers in many countries who have bred thousands of diverse varieties.

Ritchie writes that “While ancient and historic roses remain the highlight of the Centennial Rose Garden collection, the bulk of the plants therein are modern roses. That is – hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas, miniatures and other types of ever-blooming roses. These roses, through a quirk of nature, are able to bloom continuously throughout the growing season – a property known as remontancy.” Over time, the garden has focused more on hybrids that are the most disease resistant as well.

A hybrid rose named for a daughter’s wedding

Many hybridizers are amateurs with a lifelong passion for roses. Dr. Neil Adams from Chehalis, who was a member of both the Olympia and Lewis County Rose Societies, was among them. In 1985, he created a hybrid which he named “Jan’s Wedding,” to commemorate his daughter’s nuptials. Ritchie remembers him fondly.

We are lucky to live in a world with people who have such passions, and who band together to share them with each other and the rest of us. We hope there will be more generations of people who sustain this labor of love.

If you’d like to visit the garden, it’s best to call 360 890-2299 first to make sure its gate is unlocked; it is typically open Monday through Thursday from 8:15 a.m. until about 4 p.m. It is fenced to exclude deer.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


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