Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Sacramento’s grand dame of roses is gone

Muriel Humenick, here in 2008, died July 15 in her El Dorado garden.
Muriel Humenick, here in 2008, died July 15 in her El Dorado garden. Sacramento Bee file

Muriel Humenick forever will be remembered for her roses.

The grand dame of Sacramento’s garden community, she taught rose care to hundreds of people who came to her demonstrations and lectures. Wearing big rose-covered hats and equally flowery attire, she nurtured gardeners like her own beloved bushes, teaching newbie “rosarians” the finer points of pruning or how to root a cutting.

Often with her husband, Bill, she traveled the world of roses as a competitor and judge. She exhibited prized flowers as well as critiqued others’ blooms. She knew what made a rose memorable; she grew more than 5,000 varieties in her own 4-acre garden.

It was in her beautiful garden among her many roses where she died. On July 15, a gardener who helped her care for the sprawling site found her body. Humenick was 89. Services are pending.

Bill, her husband of 61 years, had died in the same garden in 2008 at age 88. With a history of heart problems, he collapsed while checking their fence line for breaks where deer had invaded to snack on their flowers.

Born Muriel Steinwell in Wisconsin, she met her future husband – a World War II pilot – while in college at the University of Minnesota. “His favorite story was about telling a doctor that we met at the Minnesota-Nebraska football game,” Muriel told The Bee after his death. “The doctor said, ‘Do you remember who won?’ He said, ‘I did.’”

The Muriel Humenick rose was named as a tribute to Muriel Humenick.

They also shared a lifelong love of roses.

“Her dad had one rose in the corner of their Victory Garden when she was a kid in Illinois; that’s what got her interested,” recalled daughter Karen Newlin of Cameron Park.

As a young woman, Muriel worked as an engineer for the Department of Transportation in Chicago, Newlin added. “At that time, she was one of the only women in that field.”

The couple married in 1947 and moved to California, where Bill worked as an aeronautics engineer and Muriel did drafting for Western Electric. They had four children and nine grandchildren, and a rose family that spans the globe.

“Muriel was a legend in the rose world,” said Beverly Rose Hopper, retired curator of the San Jose Rose Garden. “(She had) an expansive knowledge of roses that we may strive for but few will ever achieve. (She was) feisty, unafraid to speak her mind. I knew her for 30 years, and for most of those 30 years, counted her as not only a mentor but a special friend.”

Known as Mimi to her longtime friends, Humenick shared her love of roses far beyond her aptly named El Dorado home nursery, Rose Acres. Propagating new bushes out of her own vast collection, she sold roses by mail order and specialized in the hardest-to-find varieties.

“Bill wanted me to have something to do,” Muriel joked of their nursery. “He thought the nursery would be a good project to keep me busy.”

Humenick became well known to many gardeners via the Fountain Square Nursery. She served as the nursery’s official rosarian. Starting in 1979, she planned and planted the original rose garden at Fountain Square, which became the site of the Citrus Heights City Hall. That civic garden was named in 1991 by the American Rose Society as one of the nation’s best public rose gardens. Ironically, many of those roses were dug up July 18 as part of a cash-and-carry sale as Citrus Heights prepares to move to its city hall to a new site.

I learned so much about roses from Muriel and even some valuable things about myself.

Michael Daughtery, Mother Lode Rose Society

Throughout the nation, her expertise and devotion to her favorite flower made Humenick an invaluable resource. For local rose growers, she literally wrote the book: “Roses for Northern California” (Lone Pine Publishing, 2007), a handsome paperback stuffed with great advice.

“She was an inspiration to anyone wanting to learn about roses,” said Kathy Pifari of the Mother Lode Rose Society. “She was always working for the betterment of the rose world.”

To help other rose gardeners in the growing foothill communities, Humenick co-founded the Sierra Foothills Rose Society, but remained active in the Sacramento and Mother Lode rose societies, too. She also lectured throughout California.

“I learned so much about roses from Muriel and even some valuable things about myself,” said Michael Daughtery, Mother Lode’s vice president. “I cannot imagine our rose society meetings without her.”

Much of Humenick’s knowledge came from hands-on experience. She developed new hybrids and rescued many rare specimens. She preserved rose varieties that dated back to pioneer days as living, blooming history.

One of those rarities bears her name. “Muriel Humenick,” the rose, is a cheery yellow burst of sunshine. A shrub rose, it was the product of an unusual cross, the petite yellow miniature “Golden Angel” and the old-fashioned Bourbon rose “Honorine de Brabant.” Humenick had the rose in her own garden for many years and wanted to exhibit it in sanctioned rose shows, which meant her unusual yellow rose needed an official name. Longtime rose nurseryman Ralph Moore surprised Humenick in 2002 by introducing the rose as a living tribute to Muriel.

“I was after Ralph to give it a name so that I could put it in some of our rose shows,” Muriel the rose grower said in 2002. “Well, it’s got a name, and you should be growing it.”

Like many of the varieties Humenick championed, Muriel the rose remains a rarity with few if any current online sources. That makes it all the more treasured by those who knew Humenick.

“The sadness at losing a friend is eventually replaced by memories of the joys that they brought into our lives,” said author and radio host John Bagnasco of “Garden America,” a national gardening radio show. “I truly appreciate all that Muriel did for the rose world. Every time that I walk past the specimen of the ‘Muriel Humenick’ rose in my yard, I reflect that, without her, the rose might have been lost forever.

“It’s even more special to me, since the cuttings came directly from her, and the plant is now a living tribute to a great woman.”