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‘Blooms and tombs’ tour showcases Old City Cemetery’s controversial roses

Sacramento Historical Cemetery Rose Garden's curator worried about new guidelines

The Sacramento Historical Cemetery Rose Garden's curator, Anita Clevenger, raises concerns about the city's new guidelines for the garden and what it will mean for the flowers, many of them rare and historical.
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The Sacramento Historical Cemetery Rose Garden's curator, Anita Clevenger, raises concerns about the city's new guidelines for the garden and what it will mean for the flowers, many of them rare and historical.

A festoon of pink China climbing roses shades a central pathway in Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery, creating a canopy supported by sturdy metal arbors. The display, though a delight to many on a spring rose tour Saturday morning, could be uprooted if city officials follow through with plans to trim, prune and reconfigure the rose garden in coming months.

“Anything supported would have to come out,” said Anita Clevenger, the rose garden’s curator and manager, to about 20 tour-takers as they walked beneath the arches. “Let’s enjoy them while they’re still here.”

Clevenger helped to lead Saturday’s “Spring Beauties Awaken” tour, which gave visitors access and information about the “blooms and tombs” in the city’s historic graveyard – including the rose garden and the Hamilton Square Perennial Garden. The tour is held each spring after the rainy months, when the blossoms of the rare and vibrant roses are at their best.

Clevenger and other volunteers who maintain the garden have been speaking in passionate defense of the roses this month, following the release of new guidelines from the city of Sacramento that would require the trimming back or relocation of many of the bushes to better showcase tombstones and other monuments. The new guidelines, triggered by a recent historical designation for the cemetery, state that markers and monuments must be fully visible from all directions.

The proposed changes drew outcry from a large community of rose lovers who worry that moving them will damage the carefully curated collection. Supporters of the garden have written letters and emails to City Council members, posted pleas on social media, and made comments to the city preservation commission.

After hearing concerns from the volunteers and others, Councilman Steve Hansen requested a moratorium on the issue at a March 15 City Council meeting. The moratorium stops “any active movement until we can come to a reasonable agreement with the volunteers.” The issue will next be discussed at an April 13 meeting of the preservation commission.

Currently, there are 350-odd varieties of rose growing around the graveyard, draping over tombstones, arches, trellises and other structures. For example, a chain of rosa banksiae flowers – one of the first species planted when the 2.7-acre rose garden opened in 1992 – winds 60 feet up a massive pine tree. Flowers originating from Bermuda, France, China and other locales give this corner of the 30-acre cemetery a strong floral fragrance.

City officials worry that the roses pose a threat to the older structures in the Gold Rush-era cemetery, named a National Historic District in November 2014. Plants on top of stone and brick “can trap moisture and can encourage biological growth, both of which can physically damage, often irreparably, these historic features,” the guidelines state.

Also of concern are the 60 or so metal structures that hold the climbing roses. The guidelines state that any plants that do not meet the guidelines by Dec. 1, 2016, will be relocated or removed by city staff.

“The trellises are not part of the historic structures of the cemetery; they’re not a significant feature,” said Marcia Eymann, Sacramento’s city historian, in a Sacramento Bee interview earlier this month. “We’re only asking (those roses) be moved, not eliminated.”

Clevenger made several references to the new guidelines during Saturday’s event. Many of the nearly two dozen rose garden supporters on the tour said they would attend the April 13 meeting and make public comment.

“The idea of taking out some of these arches is crazy,” said Marty Stroud, who has gardened in the cemetery for nearly a decade.

Rose garden volunteers already have removed several rose bushes and trimmed back others in an attempt to appease city staff. They’ve also taken clippings of rare roses in the hopes of propagating, or rebreeding, certain flowers in case they get damaged during renovations.

Sandy Feller, a neighbor to the cemetery who was visiting the garden for the first time Saturday, said she was shocked to hear the flowers might be removed.

“The roses are really a part of the history,” she said. “The roses are just as historic as the monuments. It would be sad to lose them.”

The public will be invited again to the garden on April 2 to celebrate its designation as a Garden of Excellence from the World Federation of Rose Societies. And on April 9, Clevenger will host the annual Open Gardens, where visitors can purchase rooted clippings of the garden’s rare plants.

“In a way, it’s been very nice because more people know about our garden and our events than would have known otherwise,” Clevenger said of the recent debate. “I hope people do come and get a better appreciation for what’s there.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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