History of the Heritage Rose Garden

The San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, or the “Sangerhausen of the West,” is an unexpected jewel located in downtown San Jose. In 1988, avid gardener Lorrie Freeman and nurseryman Tom Liggett began work to develop a proposal for a rose garden in the yet undeveloped Guadalupe Gardens. In 1992, the San Jose City Council approved and funded the proposal for a heritage rose garden that would be the size of a city block. Former councilmember David Pandori was a key player who helped steer the rose garden through the approval process and sometimes treacherous political waters. The purpose of the rose garden was to provide a safe haven for important rose species and to connect the public with the rare and beautiful flowers. Special emphasis was placed on choosing types of roses that would supplement the Municipal Rose Garden’s collection. The criteria for choosing the roses that would be placed in the new garden included (1) those rose varieties that were in danger of becoming lost or inaccessible; (2) those roses whose genes contributed to the best roses ever; (3) those roses that were so great that the public should have the opportunity to view them; and (4) those roses that would become rare in the future.


Ed Wilkinson, the original Curator, and Liggett, the original Director, spent countless hours establishing the Heritage Rose Garden’s botanical collection. They scoured many places, including old cemeteries and homes, for unidentified rose species. Using Wilkinson’s extensive database of garden rose species that were available worldwide, they also gathered propagating material from gardens and collectors all over the United States and imported bud wood from several of the greatest rose collections in the world. Liggett, with significant help from the South Bay Heritage Rose Group, grew the under stock, supervised bud grafting, and grew and harvested over 4,000 roses. These roses were replanted in the new garden by over 750 volunteers during the record rains of March 1995. In September of the same year, the vice mayor and other notable members of the city dedicated the garden. Since its beginning, volunteers have constantly cared for the rose garden and planted hundreds of additional varieties.


The garden is an environmental showcase because it is designed to use the least amount of labor, water, and other resources possible. In addition, it is an all volunteer maintenance garden, and it has an integrated pest management (no chemical) policy. The garden is shaped like a bowl, the center of which is five feet deep. This unique shape allows the observer to see all the plants in the garden from any vantage point. Other natural conditions and management techniques that contribute to the health of the roses include (1) decreased humidity from the constant flow of air produced by San Jose’s airport just north of the garden; (2) surface level drip irrigation that is turned on in the morning to avoid wetting the leaves; (3) heavy mulching that decomposes soil amendment and keeps the roots at an even temperature; (4) use of compost to improve soil conditions and (5) high pruning that opens up plant centers for maximum air circulation and growth.


Today, the rose collection effort continues. As a rose matures, disease and age take their toll and they often require replacement. The combined planting requirement exceeds 100 roses a year. In the past, planting young plants from small containers surrounded by mature plants resulted in unacceptable losses. To solve this issue, rose garden personnel gained the City’s permission to construct a secure facility at the Heritage Rose Garden to transplant new roses into larger containers and grow them to a size where they could successfully compete with larger neighbors. The Potting Area and Nursery at the southeast corner of the garden was successfully built with the help of the City’s Park, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services, the San Jose Conservation Corps, generous donations by The Heritage Rose Foundation, concerned rosarians and supporting businesses.


But even with the new Potting Area and Nursery location, young rose plants needed to be started offsite in a greenhouse before they could be moved to the nursery area and then the garden. With the help of Habitat for Humanity, a new greenhouse was built at the east side of the Heritage Rose Garden in 2010. Now the new green house, plus the potting Area and Nursery, provides the local access needed by volunteers to give over 250 young roses the head start they need to successfully compete for your attention in the main garden.


Donors and supporters like Gregg Lowery and Philip Robinson from the Vintage Gardens in Sebastopol, CA are still supporting volunteers by quarantining imported plants, providing cuttings, bud wood and plants from their own collection, and donating space and labor to grow a large block of roses that volunteers set out as cuttings in the Vintage propagation area.


The garden is the largest public collection of rose varieties in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. Because volunteers do all the work required to plant and maintain the garden, it is also the largest of all volunteer gardens in the world. Establishment of the Heritage Rose Garden returned the city to its standing as a prominent rose growing community in the United States. Noted rosarian, Robert B. Martin, Jr., captured the essence of the Heritage Rose Garden when he stated that the garden is a “…holy place that all rosarians should visit sometime in their lifetime.”

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