Alaska Rose Society

This report was presented at the American Rose Society Pacific Northwest District Convention, June 29, 1968.

The Sitka Rose

by Philip M. Gardner

Alaska is comparatively young in statehood and, as with all states, likes to identify itself with a romantic past. With us, it is the gold rush, Robert Service, Jack London, the Russian occupation, Lord Baranoff, and the Russian missionaries.

There is also an adopted Alaskan Rose that becomes, in conversation, a symbol of the past; furthermore, the folklore of this rose is diffused into the past preceding the Russian purchase a little more than a hundred years ago. Picture for a moment— a returning Russian prince nurturing a rootstock or two so that he might plant it on his young bride’s grave in New Archangel, or a missionary hoping to honor the Virgin in his newly adopted land with a rose from his churchyard, or still, a grizzly Yankee skipper stopping in Sitka on his way to the Barbary Coast from the Orient giving a few plants to his host’s wife.

I personally enjoy these stories of the past, especially those concerning the legend of the rose, but it would be well to stop and choose now before fact has fallen before fancy. Let us look to Modern Roses VI and to the definition of the Sitka Rose:

"Sitka (origin unknown), said to have been raised from a rose brought from Russia and grafted to a local wild rose. Single or double, fragrant, pink, deep pink, purple-red, or white. Foliage wrinkled, gray-green. Very thorny. Fruit large, round, red. Ht. 6-8’. Resistant to cold, heat, dryness, poor soil and widely grown in Alaska."

Now, I ask you, is this description a little familiar? Could you recognize a Sitka Rose? Let us begin to clarify the image.

Years ago, while I was growing up on the coast of Maine and retaining impressions that were to mold my adulthood, there were hedges of single pink and white roses near the shore homes. The environment would be perfumed for a distance around with a blend of salt air and roses. These I found later to be Rugosas. It was told to me then that Yankee skippers brought these to the New England shores from the Far East. Considering the expanse of these hedges around ocean front estates, the traffic in Rugosas must have been very profitable, but consider also that it was a long trip and could they have all been Captain Blighs who watered the plants at the expense of his crew’s well being?

Shortly after I arrived in Alaska, I saw these same Rugosas blooming in Palmer, Anchorage, Kenai and even up in Fairbanks. But whenever I mentioned to the homeowner that they were Rugosas, I’d receive a shake of the head and, "No, these are Sitkas." this was enough to arouse my curiosity. Then, too, there were yellow double Sitka roses, pink double Sitka roses, and magenta double Sitka roses. Was this a spontaneous sporting of the old Rugosa miraculously developed in Sitka perhaps due to a happy combination of cold, dampness and sub-arctic Northern Lights?

[Rosa rugosa image]  Rosa rugosa (click to view large picture)
Let me digress awhile—the Rugosa species is a rather recent arrival to the new World. It is a member of the group Cinnamomeae and is a native of North Eastern Asia, of Northern China, Korea and Japan. It was first recorded by Carl Thunberg, a naturalist and classifier, in 1784 in the gardens of Kyota, Japan. From there it was called the Romanas or Hedgehog Rose. E.A. Bunyard in his book Old Garden Roses relates how the Chinese portrayed this rose as far back as 1000 AD. It was introduced from Japan into Great Britain in 1796 by Lee and Kennedy of Hammersmith but was not very well received at that time. Then later on the Rugosa was again introduced by Siedbold in 1845. This time it became accepted. In the United States, Thomas Hogg introduced the single form in 1872; and in 1892, Professor J. L. Budd of Iowa State College, worked with the large, single crimson form and also with a double (plena) form that he brought back from St. Petersburg. The magenta-colored double rose from Russia was later distributed as "Empress of the North" and is thought to be a sport of the single rose. Almost immediately, hybridizers commenced to work; but of the many hybrids that resulted, only a relative few survive today.

Last winter, when I was in Sitka, in the evenings after work, I called upon everyone that might have a chance bit of information concerning "The Rose." Joe Ashby, the custodian of the Sitka National Cemetery, entered into the spirit of the investigation and on a Sunday, drove me out to the old experimental station, now occupied by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Seismic Group. In front of the house, and to the right of the access road, lie orderly rows of ancient apple trees. This road ends at a garage, back of which lies a path that traverses the trial fields now overgrown. To the west of the path was an area thickly massed with rose bushes and upon examination I found thickets of Rosa nutkana, native to this area, and Rugosas. I again visited Sitka earlier this June, hoping to see the previously observed bushes in bloom, but they were still in bud. To verify the petal count, I cut across the bud with a jack knife and found that these Rugosas were white and pink singles.

Sitka is a fascinating city; it is very easy to succumb to its charm. With towering mountains at its back and in front, to the west, is an extinct volcano, Mt. Edgecombe, which is remarkable in appearance to Mt. Fujiyama in Japan. Between is a great bay dotted with spruce-covered islands. Sitka has a history that is as violent in massacre and invasion as any in the New World. This is kept real through evidence encountered throughout the town. Old Russian-built buildings still stand and are occupied. Russian-made cannons still surmount the hill on which Lord Baranoff Castle stood, and artifacts are constantly being unearthed. On Lincoln Street near the new small boat harbor sits the Shelton Jackson High School and Junior College with its complex of buildings. Then, in toward town, are several old residences and the old Russian orphanage, built in 1842, in whose yard are still two ancient Russian olive trees. On the way to the orphanage, we pass a thicket of single pink Rugosa roses grown into a mass of brier 90 feet long, facing the street and tapering to a point approximately 150 feet toward the rear.

I visited the old Russian cemetery in which the Orthodox are still interred, expecting to find the legendary rose bush but there were none to be seen in the entire area, nor was there one on the hill where the Russian princess and other royalty were buried. It would seem that if the "Sitka Rose" was brought here by the Russians this would be a place of collection. The double Rugosas that I saw in the city were in recent yards and gardens. Then where, we may ask ourselves, can we find the answer?

John Green Brady arrived in Sitka on March 13, 1878, as a minister. He was later appointed Governor of Alaska from 1897 to 1906. Governor Brady was known as the Rose Governor as he greatly loved the rose and cultivated several varieties about his home in Sitka. These were mostly hybrid perpetuals and possibly a Rugosa or two. He lived there until his death in 1918. Another personage that we might consider was Walter E. Clark, who became Governor of Alaska in 1909. Governor Clark was afterwards the founder of the Charleston (West Virginia) Rose Society and became the President of the American Rose Society in 1928 to 1929. These two men evidently established the climate that generated the "Sitka Rose." In 1898, Congress appropriated funds for the establishment of an experimental station in Sitka, but it was not until 1902 that actual work was begun. George Georgeson was named superintendent and from his reports, I’ll quote the following:

1902 – Rosa rugosa was obtained from Nelson, Manitoba.

1903 – Of the ornamentals, we have a few bushes of R. rugosa.

1904 – During the season, 10 R. rugosa were planted, 10 Eglantine.

1909 – R. rugosa, the old plants were all taken up, divided, and root cuttings made and replanted June 5. These nearly all made good growth. The 1908 seedlings were transplanted in the open at the same time. These made thrifty growth and go into the winter in good condition. The 1909 seedlings were put in the nursery row in July and are protected for the winter.

1910 – (Mention was made of the Japanese Rose (R. rugosa) as being single, red and having a short lasting flower.)

1912 – Of the shrubs grown solely for ornamentation, R. rugosa takes the lead. This hardy rose is well adapted to Alaska. Whether it will survive the winter of the Interior is still a question. It does well in a wet climate. The writer has seen it grown well in abundance on the west coast of Japan, where the rainfall is very heavy. It grows there on the sandy beaches and seems perfectly at home. It is one of the Japanese economic plants. They extract a delicate yellow dye from the roots which they use to color silks, etc.

1914 – The Rugosa and its hybrids are the only roses tried at the station that have proven satisfactory for outdoor cultivation. R. rugosa has been crossed with the wild rose of this section (R. nutkana) and with some pot roses in hope of producing useful varieties.

1915 – Of the roses tried at the station, ‘Mme. George Burant’, an everblooming white Rugosa hybrid, has proven exceedingly valuable. ‘Agnes Emily Carman’ has not done well. An unknown red Rugosa hybrid is also very valuable. The buds on the ‘Persian Yellow’ blast before opening.

1916 – The station is making an effort to obtain and propagate R. rugosas. Of all (roses) so far tried, none have proven a more genuine acquisition than the R. rugosa. A number of seedlings are grown, the seed having been for the most part gathered from bushes grown at this station. While this rose many not be considered of much value elsewhere, it is a great addition to Alaska, where few of the common ornamentals thrive. The blossoms are single and last but a couple of weeks, but they are large, very fragrant, and of various shades of rose and red, being succeeded by very large, bright red rose hips. A couple of plants have been obtained of a variety having large double flowers which last from 3–4 weeks on the bush and which in addition, are fully as fragrant as the single blossoms. These are being propagated under glass with success.

1917 – Rugosa roses made as good a showing this year as in former seasons. The large double R. rugosa hybrid formerly mentioned, the name of which is unknown, continues its strong growth and is producing large double, very fragrant blossoms. ‘Agnes Emily Carmen’ and ‘Mme. George Bruant’ did not survive the winter.

Now we will pass to:

1921 – The roses best adapted to this climate are those belonging to the R. rugosa family. They make vigorous growth at Sitka and produce a profusion of large single and double flowers of white and pink colors. A double pink rose (‘Conrad F. Meyer’) did very well this summer and is now considered hardy in this part of Alaska. It was propagated by layering this year and will be propagated by cuttings next year. About 300 double red (R. rugosa) were rooted and about 1000 young single bushes were raised from last year’s seed. The hybrid varieties did not seem to live through the winters here. The wood does not ripen enough in the summer to withstand the cold of the winter.

Selections of these plants were sent to experimental stations in Kenai, Fort Yukon, Rampart, Kodiak, Copper Center, and later to Matanuska [now Palmer] and Fairbanks.

Now we are arriving at information that starts to make a little sense. As I mentioned previously, there are not plantings of Rugosas about the existing Russian Mission. There are two or three bushes at the college, these being single, and the isolated bushes also previously mentioned.

Mr. Ashby, who had helped me in my search, obtained from Maryanne Ashby, his mother, the address of George Georgeson’s daughter, Mrs. Bennett, and found upon writing that she had died in 1964, but luckily, last spring her husband visited her sister who is still living in Washington and he replied with the following:

Dear Mr. Ashby:
In my visit Sunday with my wife’s sister, Dagmar Georgeson, I learned that, as your man surmised, it [R. rugosa] came from Japan.
Dr. Georgeson and family spent several years in Japan where Dr. Georgeson taught in a college (I believe) in Tokyo. They returned to the U. S. in 1889 or 1890 and it was shortly after that that Dr. Georgeson took over the job of operating the experimental station at Sitka.
I believe that this clears up this mystery.

/signed/ Lee H. Bennett

Philip Gardner is the founder and designer of the Centennial Rose Garden in Anchorage, Alaska. Gardner is also the founder and past president of the Alaska Rose Society, originally organized in 1967.


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Last modified: December 24, 2002