Letting the weeds take over is the opposite of a good day’s work in the garden, but Elizabeth Belk, the horticulturalist at Germantown’s Wyck House, said that neglect actually saved America’s oldest rose garden, which will host its fifth annual Old Rose Symposium on Saturday.
In 1824, Jane Bowne Haines created the fragrant rose garden that thrives at Wyck today.
Haines, who helped to found the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society along with her husband Reuben, built it around an existing “kitchen garden” that dates to the late 1700s.
That original garden was eventually abandoned, overgrown and ignored for decades, with old roses never torn out in favor of newer fashions. One of the original roses, known as a Pink Leda, blooms to this day.
In the early 1970s, noted rosarian Leona Bell arrived in the 19th-century plot, determined to see what, if anything, remained of Haines’ once-famous garden.
She discovered varieties thought to be extinct including the Lafayette Rose, which Belk described as a “little pom-pom of deep purple” which may have been cultivated in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette’s 1825 visit to Germantown.
Taking a look around
Giving NewsWorks a tour as rosebushes on all sides clutched pink buds, Belk said that Wyck’s garden now holds more than 70 antique rose cultivars, or varieties.
These include the little-known Celsiana, or Germantown Damask rose, a delicate bloom once wildly popular in the neighborhood, but fell out of fashion and nearly disappeared.
“This one’s been growing here happily for hundreds of years,” she said of the Wyck specimen.
Wyck also has an example of the first red rose variety ever to be seen in Europe: the Slater Crimson, which was named for the Swedish sea-captain who first brought it from Asia.
“Yellow roses became a huge prestige to have in your garden,” Belk said, noting that red and yellow roses were not introduced to Europe until the late 18th century.
The fuller flowers of China roses, as well as their unheard-of ability to bloom more than once in a season — “Think of a re-blooming tulip,” Belk said — entranced horticulturalists who set out to breed a world of new rose varieties.
Among these was Champney’s Pink of which Wyck’s came directly from the original 1821 stock.
Belk also paused beside a billowing musk rose on the garden’s north side. Known for its fragrance, especially in the evening, the musk rose occupies its own niche of human history.
Often put in cemeteries, they became the victims not just of impatient lawn-mowers but of “rose rustlers” who hop cemetery fences to nab their own clippings, weighing the risks of stealing and trespassing against the thrill of preserving a rare rose.
Belk explained that “old roses” are noted for their fragrance, something that is slipping away from the modern rose market in favor of qualities like long-lasting buds and strong stems.
Weekend sustainability event at Wyck
On Saturday, Wyck’s Old Rose Symposium will feature panels and workshops on eco-friendly gardening.
“The theme this year is sustainability,” Belk said. “But what does that mean?”
Part of it is roses grown with “integrated pest management” instead of pesticides.
“We don’t spray,” Belk said of Wyck’s organic gardens.
The forum will include a discussion of “earth-kind roses,” a variety currently in trials in Texas and New York. Developers hope they will require minimal pesticides and water.
Interactive morning discussions will include Heritage Rose Foundation president Stephen Scanniello and Brooklyn Botanic Garden curator Sarah Owens.
In the afternoon, participants can choose two different workshops to learn more about the care and breeding of roses. Rare Wyck rose varieties will be available for sale.
Belk hopes the program will help answer questions of “what should we be trying to do with our own gardens?”
With a highly “dynamic” local scene of farmers, gardeners, beekeepers and more, she said, “Philadelphia should be leading the way” in environmentally-friendly horticulture.
Wyck’s fifth annual Old Rose Symposium will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets are $105 ($85 for Wyck members), and include lunch and dessert catered by the Cheesecake Factory, as well as an afternoon cocktail reception in the garden.