Rosa wichuraiana and the Train that Burned Down a Rose Garden

This is a story that starts in Japan and ends in a blaze of toxic fumes in Cape Cod. But mostly it’s about climbing roses that grow at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut. For over 100 years, climbing roses have featured prominently in the Elizabeth Park rose garden, covering everything from fences to arbors to hillsides. But as recently as the 1880s, finding a hardy, floriferous climber that could withstand the Connecticut winter wasn’t so easy. The solution, oddly, came as a result of geopolitical events unfolding halfway around the world: As the Edo period ended in Japan, the ascendant emperor opened borders to foreign trade, granting western plant propagators access to Japanese roses. One East Asian species in particular, Rosa wichuraiana, held the key to producing vigorous, attractive climbers suited to northern climes. With its glossy foliage, pliable canes, and fertile blossoms, wichuraiana proved to be the ideal parent for hybridizing cold-hardy climbing roses.

Rosa wichuraiana, sect. Synstylae
Rosa wichuraiana (from Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Rosa wichuraiana and its offspring are widely recognized as classic ramblers, but when the Elizabeth Park rose garden opened in 1904 they were among the newest cultivars on the market. The species–named for German botanist, Dr. Max Wichura–first arrived in the United States in 1888 by way of the Arnold Arboretum in Boston (Scanniello and Bayard 67). The arboretum’s superintendent, Jackson T. Dawson, along with a Rhode Island nurseryman named Michael H. Horvath, were the first growers to successfully propagate new hybrids with wichuraiana as a parent species (Scanniello and Bayard 5). Other rose propagators in the Northeast followed, hybridizing their own wichuraiana creations: Jackson & Perkins in New York produced their classic ‘Dorothy Perkins’ in 1901; Hoopes, Bro., & Thomas Co. in Pennsylvania released several wichuraiana hybrids soon after. Also around this time, hybridizer Dr. Walter Van Fleet created his game-changing eponymous wichuraiana climber. ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet,’ with its large blossoms and sturdy canes, would usher in a new era of climbing rose, giving rise to modern, repeat-blooming climbers such as ‘New Dawn’ (Beales 30).

The arrival of the wichuraiana hybrid also marked a shift in the balance of exchange between Old- and New-World rose growers. For centuries, Britain and Continental Europe, abetted by royal patronage, had remained at the center of western rose culture. But with the arrival of the wichuraiana hybrid, the direction of innovation began to reverse course. Encouraged by Horvath and Dawson’s early successes, European growers such as Barbier Frères & Compagnie in France, George Paul in England, and Christoph Weigand in Germany began producing their own wichuraiana cultivars.

Today, more than any other category of rose, the wichuraiana hybrid defines the appearance of the Elizabeth Park rose garden. When Swiss-born landscape architect Theodore Wirth designed the garden at the turn of the century, he stocked its fence lines with Horvath creations such as ‘Pink Roamer’ and draped its arches with ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (Board of Park Commissioners’ Report). And recognizing wichuraiana’s groundcover-like propensity to trail and re-root (what horticulturalists call a “procumbent” growth habit), he planted a selection of cultivars on the slope around the garden’s central gazebo to prevent soil erosion (Board of Park Commissioners’ Report). Had he designed the garden just a decade earlier, Wirth’s vision would have taken on a vastly different character. Certainly he still would have had a wealth of old garden roses, hybrid perpetuals, and hybrid teas to choose from, but none would have enveloped the park’s fences, arbors, and slopes with the same abundant clusters of delicate blossoms as the wichuraiana hybrids.

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‘Dorothy Perkins’ in the Elizabeth Park rose garden (photo by Mike George)

Of the early-20th-century wichuraiana growers, none left their mark on Elizabeth Park more than a hybridizer in Cape Cod by the name of Michael H. Walsh. A plant list from the rose garden’s early days reads like a catalog of Walsh-made ramblers: ‘Hiawatha’ (1904) wrapped its pillars; ‘Minnehaha’ (1904) graced its fence lines; ‘Lady Gay’ (1905) climbed the posts of its center gazebo (Roses, Elizabeth Park, lists, 1912-1930). But none featured more prominently in the Elizabeth Park rose garden than Walsh’s prize creation, ‘Excelsa.’ Soon after Walsh released ‘Excelsa’ in 1909, it would surpass ‘Crimson Rambler’—itself a Japanese import—as the go-to red climbing rose in the United States (Scanniello and Bayard 117). To this day, Excelsa covers over half of Elizabeth Park’s famous arbors, blanketing the rose garden in crimson from late June through early July, all but eclipsing the park’s other bloomers.

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Walsh’s ‘Excelsa’ on the Elizabeth Park arches
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Walsh’s ‘Hiawatha’ on an Elizabeth Park fence

Now here’s where the story takes a bizarre twist. The land on which Elizabeth Park was built was bequeathed to the city of Hartford by a wealthy resident named Charles M. Pond in 1897. Charles and his father Charles F. Pond had earned their fortunes as executives for the Hartford and New Haven Railroad (Lyon 3). That same railroad (later consolidated under the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad) also happened to transport roses from Walsh’s Cape Cod nursery to locales west, such as Elizabeth Park (woodsholemuseum.org). But in 1901, just as Walsh’s business was taking off, the train station near his nursery caught fire, pluming toxic fumes throughout the garden, destroying an entire crop of roses (woodsholemuseum.org).

One can’t help but appreciate the irony: The same railroad that funded the lands on which Elizabeth Park was built also burned down the nursery that gave the park its greatest roses. Fortunately, the ensuing years were kind to Walsh. The railroad paid him a hefty settlement for his losses (woodsholemuseum.org). And Elizabeth Park, for its part, went on to boast one of the finest displays of Walsh roses in the world. His wichuraiana creations, many of them original to the rose garden’s planting, continue to adorn the park’s arbors and fence lines.

Sources

Beales, Peter. Classic Roses. Henry Holt and Company, 2004.

Board of Park Comissioners’ Report, 1904. Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

Lyon, Martha. Elizabeth Park History Project. 2011, pp. 1–25, Elizabeth Park History Project.

Roses, Elizabeth Park, lists, 1912-1930. Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library, Box 29, Folder 13.

Scanniello, Stephen, and Tania Bayard. Climbing Roses. Prentice Hall, 1994.

Walsh’s Rambler Roses, Woods Hole Museum, woodsholemuseum.org/old_businesses/pages/walsh.html.

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