A Cut Above

CHOP, CHOP: Volunteers who affectionately call themselves the “Grateful Deadheaders’ prune the rose bushes at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Each of the more than 4,000 plants are carefully trimmed to allow for a spectacular bloom in the spring. Tom Carruth, an experienced rosarian, oversees the project. Mitch Lehman Photo

For the past three weeks, a team of volunteers has descended each morning (or at least those not accompanied by a torrential downpour) upon the Rose Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to partake in the very labor-intensive task of pruning the 4,000 or so roses that cover the three-acre expanse.

They lovingly refer to themselves as the “Grateful Deadheaders” and come armed with coolers, sun protection, snacks and an arsenal of garden tools that could fell a sycamore or trim a fingernail.

The Huntington’s John Villareal and Tom Carruth discuss the day’s strategy.

Organizing the amateur army is Tom Carruth, the E. L. and Ruth B. Shannon Curator of the Rose Collection, who patiently answers questions and provides directions to the early risers, who will spend more than a month on the annual trim as they remove all old growth, table-topping the rows of the prized plants.

The Rose Garden was originally created in 1908 for the private enjoyment of Henry and Arabella Huntington. Roses were a particular favorite flower of Arabella’s. The garden was designed primarily for display, providing huge quantities of cut blooms for the 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.

Carruth and his trusty clippers.

Each variety in the collection is labeled with its name, class, and date of introduction, offering a resource for rose fanciers.

“Our most common question about roses concerns fragrance,” said Tom Carruth. “Even though we can readily say there are fragrant roses scattered throughout the garden, we can now point them to two beds that contain nothing but heavily perfumed varieties. Then they can smell to their hearts’ delight.”

Carruth joined the staff in 2012 and is an award-winning rose hybridizer who has worked in the California rose industry since 1975. During his long career as a rosarian, he has introduced more than 100 rose hybrids, among them such notable blooms as the deep purple toned ‘Ebb Tide,’ according to a release from The Huntington.

BEFORE AND AFTER: Rose bushes at The Huntington are thoroughly pruned, see above and middle right, to allow for optimum bloom in the sprintime. Volunteers assist Huntington staffers in completing the time-consuming chore. Mitch Lehman Photos

“Our garden serves as an important educational tool to help people learn the versatility of roses,” Carruth explained. “The rose family is the third largest plant family, offering a broad palette of colors and forms for the home garden. We want to show visitors the many different ways to use roses in the landscape and help dispel the misconception that roses are difficult to grow.”

If all goes according to plan, the first blooms of the year are expected in April.

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