Friday, May 6, 2016

Antique Cemetery Roses!

Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, CA (

I suppose I’ve been living under a rock all this time. Even my MOTHER knew about “antique roses” when I asked her if she had ever heard of them. Now, unless you're totally into horticulture, you might never think to put those two words together (unless you're naming a new rock band - "Antique Roses" is at least as good a name as "Stone Roses,” the name of a well-known British band). But Google "Antique Roses" and you will find something surprising, especially if you are a taphophile or coimetromaniac!

For those unaware of the names people use to describe us cemetery travelers, a “taphophile” is one who loves “funerals, cemeteries and the rituals of death” (according to and (according to www.wordinfo) a "coimetromaniac" is someone who exhibits “an abnormal attraction to and desire to visit cemeteries.

So anyway, its apropos of the season that I am writing this, as it is springtime and so many flowers are in bloom. Live flowers in cemeteries banish the darkness, the dread, and this is one of the reasons Victorian cemetery architects designed it that way.

Roses Gone Wild
I would assume that most people don’t realize that some of the roses growing in our old Victorian-era cemeteries might very well be the actual roses that were planted there a hundred years ago! If a cemetery is well-maintained and families trim the bushes around their ancestors’ graves, there’s no reason to assume that a particular rose bush might be “antique.” But it is certainly possible.

If an old cemetery is allowed to grow wild, like the 1855 Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia, one can see the effect of bushes and trees that are not maintained. A fifty-year-old rose bush can grow into a ten-foot ball of thorns, totally obscuring a headstone or monument. This has happened at Mount Moriah. Since taking responsibility for the grounds keeping in 2011 (when the cemetery was abandoned), the all-volunteer Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. has cut back a large portion of the bushes grown wild, the invasive trees, and Japanese knotweed that do their best to hide (and sometimes topple) the grave markers.

On a recent tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery that I gave to representatives of the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum (see link at end), I pointed out such an overgrown rose bush, which would soon blossom and equip itself with thorns that could pierce armor. Bryan Thompson-Nowak (Assistant Director, Continuing Education & Penn Student Outreach of the Morris Arboretum), replied simply, “antique roses.”

This was the first time I ever heard those two words together. I asked him to explain. It seems that people who know a lot about roses and want to propagate the old varieties, will visit old cemeteries and abandoned houses to get clippings of the rose bushes! Clippings can be used to start a new plant. Why bother? In addition to their unusual beauty and historical significance, hundred-year-old-rose variations are hardy. They may have lasted behind that abandoned house for fifty years with no need for humans to care for them.

“In addition to their long and rich history, old roses have many benefits over many of the modern hybrid varieties found in today’s gardens … these beauties are able to thrive under difficult conditions – and for good reason. You see, old or antique roses grow on their own roots, so they can tolerate winter’s freezing temperatures. In fact, they’re often referred to as “subzero roses.” Additionally, old roses are drought-hardy and easily stand up to hot summer sun and drying winds – once established.” -

Hundreds of rose varieties from the 16th through 20th centuries have been identified and are cared for in many cemetery horticulture gardens around the United States. See links below for websites that describe such gardens in Denver, Lynchburg, and Sacramento.

This weekend, in fact – Mothers’ Day Weekend – is the Annual Antique Rose Festival at the Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia!

For an amazing tour of Sacramento, California’s Old City Cemetery historic antique Rose Garden (500 roses!), please visit their website:

References, Further Reading, and Photos Galore!
(Several of these links were graciously provided by Bryan Thompson-Nowak of the Morris Arboretum)