Debbie Arrington

Seeds: Cemetery rose garden pays tribute to its founder

Barbara Oliva, who died Oct. 14, nurtured hundreds of rare roses in Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery.
Barbara Oliva, who died Oct. 14, nurtured hundreds of rare roses in Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery. Sacramento Bee File

Barbara Oliva loved Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery.

A force of nature, the retired schoolteacher turned a neglected local landmark into an internationally known and beloved “living library” of rare roses and other plants, rescued from abandoned farmsteads and pioneer settlements. One foundling – dubbed “Barbara’s Pasture Rose” by her fellow rose rustlers and cemetery volunteers – now is a blooming tribute to her preservation efforts.

So it’s only fitting that a celebration of her life should be held among the many roses she saved and nurtured.

On Sunday, Nov. 1, in the cemetery’s Historic Rose Garden, her friends and family will host a memorial for Oliva, who died Oct. 14 after several months of declining health. She was 87.

“While she had been declining for some time, it was a blow to all of us who knew her,” said Judy Eitzen, who served with Oliva on the Old City Cemetery Committee. “Barbara served as curator of the Historic Rose Garden some 20 years and we volunteers continue in her footsteps.”

Those who knew Oliva or admired her work are invited to attend the 1 p.m. celebration of her life and share their memories.

“We hope to give Barbara the tribute that she deserves, in the garden and cemetery that she worked so hard to develop and preserve,” said Anita Clevenger, the rose garden’s longtime manager and current curator.

Oliva, who worked every day in the rose garden for two decades, started as a volunteer at Sacramento’s oldest cemetery, which dates back to 1849. She was a widow, interested in gardening and local history, and found an outlet to garden on a monumental scale.

Besides roses and other flowers, Oliva also cultivated volunteers who have helped the cemetery garden thrive. Often dressed in period costume, she led tours of the garden with contagious enthusiasm. For the rarity of its roses as well as the dedication of its volunteers, the Historic Rose Garden was inducted in 2009 into the Great Rosarians of the World international hall of fame.

“It was so wonderful to see her go from a life full of teaching and helping children to doing a lot with singing and light opera and painting – another of her interests – to creating this amazing garden,” said Paul Oliva, her son. “She taught for 38 years; her first career was quite substantial. She taught developmentally disabled children before switching to second grade. But she did so much after that, too. She not only loved roses but the history of roses and the history of California, and that’s all combined in a beautiful place that the community loves.”

When she started in the early 1990s, the cemetery had fallen on hard times. Waist-high weeds grew over many graves and crumbling monuments. Amid the Victorian tombstones, Oliva set out to create a garden of rose varieties that date back a century or more. These would be flowers the cemetery’s residents once knew and enjoyed.

Now, the cemetery rose garden boasts more than 500 roses, many not found anywhere else. An example is Barbara’s Pasture Rose.

Oliva discovered her namesake flower while searching for old roses in Butte County. She spotted a bush covered with big purple-pink blooms growing in a deserted pasture near the tiny Gold Rush town of Cherokee. She hopped over a fence, made some cuttings and brought them home to Sacramento. She propagated the tender cuttings, coaxing them to grow on their own roots. Then, she transplanted the best little bush into the cemetery to add to its collection.

While her foundling grew, she painstakingly researched its possible heritage and called in other old rose experts. Eventually, it was determined that Barbara’s Pasture Rose was one of a kind. Classified as a hybrid perpetual, this rose likely is related to La Reine, a famous French rose first introduced in 1842. But Barbara’s Pasture Rose grows more vigorously with larger, darker blooms, making it a treasure for rose collectors.

And like other old favorites, its fragrance is amazing. One bloom can perfume a room.

Oliva loved to share the story of her rose’s rescue and the cemetery garden’s rebirth. And in a way, she will continue to do that. The Heritage Rose group is accepting donations in her honor for a permanent tribute to its founder: Interpretative signs for visitors to the rose garden. One will tell the tale of Barbara’s Pasture Rose, the other of the garden’s history. This tribute assures the cemetery rose garden will always bear Barbara Oliva’s loving touch.

Barbara Oliva Memorial

Where: Historic City Cemetery, 1000 Broadway, Sacramento

When: 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 1

Details: 916-264-7839,

Also: Donations in memory of Barbara Oliva may be made to the Historic City Cemetery’s Historic Rose Garden. Checks should be made payable to “OCCC-HRG,” with a note stating, “For Rose Garden Signage in Memory of B. J. Oliva.” Send donations to: Historic Rose Garden, attention Anita Clevenger, Old City Cemetery Committee, Inc., 1000 Broadway, Sacramento, CA 95818.