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Cemetery roses turn into prickly issue

Tour Sacramento's famous City Cemetery rose garden

Sacramento's historic City Cemetery is home to a world-famous rose garden featuring more than 500 rare roses.
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Sacramento's historic City Cemetery is home to a world-famous rose garden featuring more than 500 rare roses.

For decades, gardens and graves have coexisted at Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery.

But the recent designation of the Gold Rush-era graveyard as historic has triggered new rules that could require the removal or drastic cutting of many rare specimens in the cemetery’s world-famous rose garden, which features more than 500 varieties. Several of these can be found only in this Sacramento garden, internationally heralded as a “living library of rare roses.”

To better preserve the stone monuments and restore the cemetery to an earlier historic period, the city has ordered arbors, trellises, decorative arches, tripods and other metalwork be taken down and plants removed from plots. Under the new guidelines, markers and monuments must be fully visible from all directions. No plants can be within 12 inches of monuments.

No longer can roses or other plants drape gracefully over tombstones. Gone will be rows of rose-covered arches. Without metalwork for support, other climbing roses may be be lost, too.

“I’ve been in a panic,” said Anita Clevenger, the rose garden’s curator and manager. “We’ve been frantically trying to propagate bushes that might be lost. It’s put our volunteers under tremendous stress.”

Volunteers have until Saturdayto comply or present plans for plant relocation, with a final deadline of Dec. 1 for renovations, she said. So far, about 200 rosebushes have been severely cut back and 10 bushes removed. Another 75 to 100 bushes, particularly rare climbers, likely will need to be relocated, but may not survive transplanting.

The rose garden contains more than 60 metal structures, according to the volunteers. That includes about 40 arches over pathways as well as rebar supports that are not visible when the roses are in bloom. Most of these structures sit on top of the soil and mimic those used a century or more ago. Volunteers modeled them after 1860s photos of the cemetery.

“The metal structures are a way to keep plants under control,” Clevenger said. “They keep the roses off the monuments.”

City staff has suggested that the large climbing rosebushes – which can reach 20 feet or more in height – be moved along the cemetery’s street fences on Broadway, Muir Way and Riverside Boulevard. About 18 climbers already line the Broadway fence.

“No roses are being destroyed; we just want them trimmed,” said Marcia Eymann, Sacramento’s city historian. “The trellises are not part of the historic structures of the cemetery; they’re not a significant feature. We’re only asking (those roses) be moved, not eliminated. They could run along the fence lines. Quite honestly, it would be quite striking to see those roses blooming on the fences where they’d be visible from the road.”

Founded in 1992, the cemetery rose garden is a relatively new addition to the 30-acre cemetery, which dates to the 1849 Gold Rush. Also established in recent years were the cemetery’s Hamilton Square perennials garden and the California Native Plant Society garden.

And therein lies the rub; the gardens are not considered “historically significant.” In November 2014, the cemetery was named a National Historic District. That designation brought new rules governing how its historic attributes are preserved.

“This is a very prestigious honor,” Eymann said. “Very few cemeteries are on the National Register (of Historic Places) in the United States. To preserve that historic status, we must maintain and preserve the historic attributes.”

Plants can cause damage to stonework and monuments, she said. Foliage can trap moisture and humidity. Roots can disturb graves. So might metal posts. When it comes to preservation, the monuments come first.

“What’s really special about the cemetery is that it represents the Gold Rush and how the world rushed into (Sacramento),” Eymann said. “We attract people from all over the world because people from all over the world are buried there.”

In addition, there are security and safety issues, said parks supervisor Tony Ulep. “There are homeless camping at night, shooting up in the bathroom. We’re finding syringes. It’s so overgrown with vegetation, people are stashing sleeping bags. I had a volunteer tell me she didn’t feel safe because the roses were so overgrown.”

But rose lovers say without the gardens, and particularly the rare roses, the cemetery would be lifeless – much like it was before the gardens were planted.

“I don’t want it to turn back into a cultural desert,” said visitor Carole Koblik, who lives near the cemetery and walks through it daily. “Before, there was so much vandalism and people didn’t go there. I see how much work the volunteers put in. They’ve turned it into this incredible garden that so many people like.”

Koblik said she understands the need to balance history with change; her brother, Steve Koblik, was president of the famous Huntington Library and gardens.

“They too made changes, beneficial to people alive here and now,” she said. “It makes sense to be relevant and enjoyed.”

With many varieties dating back to Victorian times, the rose garden’s large and unusual bushes aren’t “overgrown” but growing to full size, the way they did in the 1800s, say volunteers.

“The whole rose world is upset about this,” said Kathryn Mackenzie, a longtime volunteer. “We have visitors from all the world come here to see the roses. They come because we have roses they can’t see anywhere else.”

That worldwide reputation has brought many accolades to the cemetery rose garden. In 2009, the garden was inducted into the Great Rosarians of the World international hall of fame.

“The reputation of this garden is bigger than national, it’s worldwide,” said Stephen Scanniello, president of the Heritage Rose Foundation and curator of the New York Botanical Garden’s Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. “This garden contains the largest collection of rare and endangered roses in the United States. ... It’s a national treasure.”

With its graceful arbors and trellises, the cemetery garden is true to its Gold Rush and Victorian roots, he added. “Among the most important elements of the garden are the historic climbing roses. When garden cemeteries were first created, roses were an important feature. They were trained on structures, decorating tombs, and planted on graves to honor those who rest in peace.”

Scanniello, who visited the cemetery garden in January, noted he’s familiar with rules in national historic districts and landmarks; he works at one, too.

“The unreasonable and unfounded demands from the city will endanger the integrity of this collection,” Scanniello said. “No doubt, fragile roses will disappear forever.”

Jolene Adams, immediate past president of the American Rose Society and vice president for North America of the World Federation of Rose Societies, will be on hand April 2 to dedicate a plaque noting the rose garden’s most recent honor: the World Federation’s Award of Garden Excellence. Only seven American gardens have won that award.

Adams is well aware of the current controversy.

“They do have a valid point; the (metalwork) was not there originally,” she said. “But it does enhance the beauty and brings people into the rose garden.”

City officials repeatedly said only one volunteer has complained about the guidelines, but other volunteers contacted disagreed.

“They never spoke to me, they never approached me,” said Leslie Hurlburt, manager of the cemetery’s Hamilton Square perennials garden. “We have lots of plants that drape over edges and large shrubs. Are they going to say they’re overgrown, too?”

Hurlburt, who donated 100 hours in February to the cemetery, has seen the gardens flourish with the help of volunteers. Before the garden effort started in the early 1990s, the cemetery was all but abandoned and filled with waist-high weeds.

“Before volunteers came in, it was horrible,” he said. “Many of these arbors were made with historic fencing. They were installed with the city’s blessing.”

Parks supervisor Ulep said the garden groups did not receive written permission when the arbors were originally installed more than 20 years ago. “Anything above 6 feet has to have a permit,” he said.

Security issues “are just a red herring,” Hurlburt said. “You don’t cut down the trees in Central Park because they’re a security hazard. There are lots of places to hide if the cemetery was totally barren.

“I think (the city) would prefer no greenery at all; just sun-bleached stones,” he said. “But they need to take a step back and really realize what they’re throwing out.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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