Geneva Anderson digs into art

Love old roses? This Sunday’s 32nd Celebration of Old Roses in El Cerrito will have hundreds and it’s free

Tuscany Superb, pre-1837, known in ancient times as “Old Velvet,” is well-named. Its flowers are deep crimson to maroon when they first open, taking on the appearance of crushed velvet, and take on black and purple tones as they age. Photo: Geneva Anderson

May belongs to old roses.  Whether they climb on a fence, or explode on their own with sprays of colorful and fragrant blooms, or flavor gourmet ice cream, they are a source of pure delight.  I’ll be in rose rhapsody this Sunday at El Cerrito’s 32nd annual Celebration of Old Roses.  This is a yearly trek to the I make along with a number of other old rose devotees from all over California where we can see, smell and talk old roses with other addicts.  The annual spring event is sponsored by the Heritage Roses Group and takes place at the El Cerrito Community Center from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Old roses, or antique roses, are varieties that date from 1860 or earlier.  Their attractiveness grows from their wonderful rich and varied fragrances and graceful growth habits which make them ideal for the garden and disease resistance.  The celebration in El Cerrito works a lot like an old-fashioned country fair.  The focal point is a 100-foot plus display of freshly picked old roses in old-fashioned mason jars, all in glorious states of bloom and organized by class—gallicas, centifolias, damasks, mosses, hybrid chinas, bourbons, portlands, chinas, teas, eglantines, floribundas and others.   There is ample opportunity to explore the nuances of each variety—fragrance, color, size, petal count, foliage and growth habit.  There are  educational rose books, light refreshments, and a proliferation of rosy knick-knacks—greeting cards, essential oils, jewelry, scarves, painted china, rose-flavored jam and honey.  And, of course, there are old rose vendors from all over (Vintage Gardens from Sonoma County) who will be selling rare old roses, most of which are own root roses.

Monsieur Tillier, a glorious tea rose that repeats several times and has a remarkable color—salmon and peachy shades of pink blended with deeper pinks that change over the course of its bloom. The result is an ever-changing spectrum of lush color. Photo: Geneva Anderson

I was seriously hooked on roses about 20 years ago, when I was working as a journalist in Bulgaria and wrote about rose attar and the world famous annual rose harvest festival in Kazanlik.  After encountering acres and acres of richly fragrant damask roses, I too wanted a piece of the action. From there, it’s been a joyous ride, that first required me to put down some roots of my own.  Now, settled in the country Sonoma County and growing about 100 old roses on two properties with differing microclimates, I am living out my rose dream…but there are NEVER enough roses.

When our local Sebastopol rose gurus, Gregg Lowery and Phillip Robinson, went exclusively mail order with their revered antique rose nursery Vintage Gardens, we lost one of the best hands-on rose education experiences to be had in Northern, CA.  With their very livelihood in jeopardy, they won’t be having their annual open garden this year which, for years, has showcased their fabulous collection of some 3,600 rare and old roses (all labeled).  Old rose events like the one in El Cerrito have to sustain those of us who are hungry to see rare roses and to road test the extensive knowledge we’ve gleaned from late-night reading and dog-earring of our rose books.

My bible is the Vintage Gardens Complete Catalogue of Antique and Extraordinary Roses. This must-have catalogue gives an utterly riveting blow by blow accounting of the properties of nearly 3000 old and very rare roses, the largest list of roses offered by any nursery in the world today. Consulting rosarians like Gregg Lowery will in be El Cerrito on Sunday, answering questions and identifying old roses.  His enthusiasm for old roses is legendary and if you have a chance, do stop by and let him know how much his efforts in bringing us rare roses are appreciated.

Have a rose that you can’t identify?   Just put a complete cutting (full bloom, bud and some foliage) in a jar and bring it to the event and the experts will try to identify your rose.

Another fabulous aspect of El Cerrito’s celebration is the chance to try and buy some very high quality rose products. Last year, I purchased some delightful “Rose Embrace” rose eau de toilette from Healdsburg perfumers Jan and Michael Tolmasoff who run the Russian River Rose Company. The Tolmasoffs are the real-deal–they grow hundreds of damask roses and harvest their own petals to make their own unique rose scents. They also offer hands-on perfume rose harvest tours at their Healdsburg rose ranch where they have over 650 varieties of roses.  I also bought some Green Rose Chakra Flower Essence by Luna Fina, laced with vodka, that promised to help align my chakras and am definitely getting more of those.

Summer Damask is an abundantly fragrant ancient rose from which rose attar is obtained. It blooms but once a year in massive pure pink sprays with very spiky thorns, loaded with blooms and with very soft, green gray leaves. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Rose shows require extensive planning, organization and support.  The Heritage Roses Group, formed in 1975, is a fellowship of those who care about old garden roses, species roses, old or unusual roses – particularly those roses introduced into commerce prior to the year 1867.  The group’s purposes are to preserve, enjoy, and share knowledge about the old roses.

Details: El Cerrito’s 32nd annual Celebration of Old Roses, Sunday May 20, 2012, El Cerrito Community Center, 7007 Moeser Lane, El Cerrito. 11 am to 3:30 p.m. There is no admission charge.  For information, call Kristina Osborn at The Heritage Roses Group (510) 527-3815, or visit

May 17, 2012 Posted by | Gardening | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment