City staff pledges to help preserve cemetery roses along with monuments

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.

Sacramento city staff members said Tuesday they plan to work closely with volunteers at the Historic City Cemetery’s famed rose garden while also preserving its historically protected monuments in a bid to ease tensions over what volunteers feared were city moves that would endanger some of those beloved flowers.

Many volunteers who care for the garden have criticized new garden guidelines set forth by the city that required some of the rose bushes be cut back or moved to better protect monuments and other historical features in the 30-acre City Cemetery, which dates to 1850. Considered the largest public cemetery in California, the space was designated a National Historic District in November 2014.

“I believe the volunteers will be satisfied,” said City Councilman Steve Hansen, whose district includes the cemetery. “My goal is to keep as many plants where they are as possible.”

Developed by an ad hoc committee, those city guidelines reflect the cemetery’s elevated status on the National Register of Historic Places, which comes with more stringent protections.

Rose garden curator Anita Clevenger, along with other volunteers, met with a representative of Hansen’s office Tuesday. She said they intend to submit a plan by the city’s Saturday deadline detailing how the rose garden volunteers will tackle the relocation, with work to be completed by December. She estimated that 75 to 100 rose bushes would still need to be moved.

“I believe the city (officials) when they say they are committed to keeping the garden,” Clevenger said.

“What we’ve learned is how much the community loves the garden and its climbing roses,” she added. “These roses are part of the fabric of the cemetery.”

Hansen said a bigger issue than where roses grow is the cemetery’s antiquated irrigation system, which needs to be replaced. The project will cost an estimated $1.1 million, according to a 2015 study, but the work may be done in stages as funding allows.

“That’s really urgently needed,” Hansen said. “The current irrigation system is actually destroying monuments. That’s an active threat.”

With more than 500 bushes, the garden – which is mostly on its own drip irrigation system – includes many unusual varieties and is heralded by experts as a “living library of rare roses.”

The perceived threat to the garden alarmed rose preservationists worldwide after The Bee reported about the city plan Sunday. Dozens of rose lovers bombarded the city staff with pleas to keep the garden as is.

City officials responded with a statement posted online Monday that clarified their stance. “At no time were there any recommendations to have the roses ripped out or killed off in any way,” the statement read.

“We’re proud of the historic cemetery. ... It’s a treasure,” said Christopher Conlin, the city’s parks and recreation director. “The rose garden is an encapsulation of the early decoration of a lot of the plots. However, over time, some plants in plots have grown to the extent they’ve impeded with some of the historic monuments, mausoleums and brickwork. We need to come up with a compromise.”

The new guidelines, which the city said the volunteers helped create, require that plants and foliage be trimmed away from monuments and that non-historic metalwork be removed or moved to the cemetery’s fence lines. That includes more than 60 arches, trellises, tripods and other structures erected for climbing roses. Under the guidelines, those roses likely would have to be moved along with their supports.

Six of the trellises were created out of historic fencing provided by former city historian Jim Henley. Others are made of rebar or other metalwork.

“There’s a safety issue,” Conlin said. “We don’t know how the trellises were put in. It would be a tragedy if one fell over; we want to protect our visitors.”

About 98 percent of the cemetery’s rose garden was planted after 1992 when the garden was founded. Although the plants are relatively young, their varieties are quite old and rare, collected from other Gold Rush-era cemeteries and abandoned foothill homesteads. Ten to 12 bushes in the cemetery were planted prior to 1992, likely by family members of the deceased.

“About 80 percent of our roses are varieties that were introduced in 1916 or earlier,” Clevenger said. “They’re considered roses of the Victorian era. ... We’re hopeful we can find a way to keep some of the trellises in place.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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