To stroll through the newly restored Rose Collection at The Huntington is to walk a line from the Gilded Age to the present day in Southern California. In the beginning, the garden was created by a very wealthy family for their own personal enjoyment. Today, it is open to the public as part of a revered institution. Under the tutelage of rosarian Tom Carruth, the garden is both respectful of its heritage while demonstrating contemporary concepts visitors may freely borrow to create wonderment in their own gardens.
The garden’s story began when railroad and real estate tycoon Henry Huntington retired from active business interests at the age of 60. A man of vision, he turned his attention to the 600-acre working San Marino Ranch he purchased in 1903. When Huntington first set eyes on the land, it held a 12,000-square-foot Victorian home; cows and chickens were raised alongside citrus trees and alfalfa fields.
The tycoon formulated plans for a distinguished, 35,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts mansion. Construction began in 1908 and was completed in 1911. In 1913, Huntington married his late-uncle’s widow, Arabella. Arabella was one of the richest women in the world, and an investor and art collector whose taste and judgment Henry esteemed. The Huntingtons filled their personal palace with impressive works of art and a library of considerable historic note.
Much of the ranch remained in agricultural production. However, hillsides, canyons and rocky slopes not suitable for crops and orchards were transformed into ornamental gardens. As important as any of their other collections was the three-acre Rose Garden. According to the Huntington website “The garden was designed primarily for display, providing copious quantities of cut blooms for the large, elaborate floral arrangements favored in their home. Household records indicate that in one year alone more than 30,000 flowers were used in these massive bouquets, 9,700 of which were roses.”
Enter the modern era; expectations of exquisite beauty are no longer reserved solely for the upper class. In 2012, Tom Carruth was named the E.L. and Ruth B. Shannon Curator of the Rose Collection. Coming to this position at a time when funding was secure for major renovations, Carruth’s mission was to restore glory to the dowager garden while keeping her relevant. Not only are changes to the garden pleasingly paired with new classical architectural features, but the garden’s bloom season now extends from spring through early December.
Updating the rose garden’s infrastructure meant embracing technology. The corroded irrigation system, circa The Great Depression, is now operable by an iPhone. Rotted trellising has been replaced by new structures built with composite materials that look like wood but are impervious to weather. The new trellising offers rhythmic structure in the middle ground between elegant sweeps of lawn and the grandness proffered by heritage trees.
One of the delights of the rose garden is the faux bois arbor formed of 100 concrete trees draped with wisteria and climbing roses that guides visitors as they stroll towards the Japanese garden. When the arbor was originally constructed almost 90 years ago, the properties of reinforced concrete were not well known. And as a result, this visitor favorite was beginning to crumble. Local craftsman Terence Eagan is replicating replacement trees using updated techniques.
With a modern audience to enchant, Tom values a rose’s performance over its popularity. He directed that all remaining roses audition for continuing roles to entertain the public. In order to promote the health of the soil, no insecticides or fungicides are sprayed. The prima donnas—those plants with little immunity to disease—disappeared from the playbill. So have the monsters that previously overwhelmed structural garden elements. The remaining roses in the collection are graded for what Carruth describes as “show and smell.” Stamina is a requirement; scent earns bonus points. The plants that perform with reliable virtuosity through summer and into the winter holiday season remain in the cast. Those that do not were replaced with varieties most adapted to the reality of the long Mediterranean entertaining season.
Tom takes artistic pleasure orchestrating moments of intimacy within the rose garden, such as the floral vignettes at entrances to the Rose Garden Tea Room and the Herb Garden. Each offers opportunities to appreciate a bloom’s artistry up-close. Flower form and petal count are matters of personal preference as is color, which ranges from intense solids to pale watercolors, to striped and even different colors on a petal’s reverse. Through all the scenic paces in the garden, Tom’s choice of roses brushes the landscape with boldly contrasting hues. The drama of vibrant tangerine ‘Jump for Joy’ against the somber purple of ‘Outta the Blue’ reads as a modern floral ode to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
Scientific training has taught Tom to pay attention to what best suits the roses at this location. Each spring at the Huntington, new growth gets a kick-start with an application of granular Scott’s Natural Lawn Food. The plants prefer to be watered in the early morning. He has found that they are not, as reputed, notorious drinkers. He has cut back the watering schedule by 60 percent. What the plants do appreciate is a periodic foliar feeding. Tom recommends a “cocktail” he learned visiting Sacramento gardens under the care of T.J. David: a nutritious brew of Grow More Jump Start Plant Tonic and Seaweed Extract spiked with dissolvable mycorrhiza and nitrogen.
“Where are the fragrant roses?” is a common question. While flowers with discernable fragrance are spaced throughout the garden, two beds are dedicated solely to headily perfumed varieties. This is a good place to inhale when the sun is low; to educate the nose that not all fragrant roses carry a single note named “rose.” Some blossoms are redolent with the freshness of lemon or grapefruit; others are pungent like myrrh, or sweet like honey.
For a few weeks each winter the roses rest for the coming year. To keep color in the garden year ‘round, Tom has planted 170 pockets of bulbs, a successful strategy that achieves maximum color with minimum effort. Some of his favorites include Babiana, Brodiaea, Freesia, Habranthus, Sparaxis, and re-blooming bearded iris. It is an added delight to have flowers where bees and hummingbirds can nectar, proving that no loved garden need ever be completely dormant, not even in the dead of winter.