First published in the Jan. 27 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
The greater Pasadena area might be considered the home of the rose in the weeks surrounding New Year’s Day for reasons that are both obvious and obscure.
There’s the iconic Tournament of Roses parade and Rose Bowl football game that takes place on the first day of January, unless it falls on a Sunday, which will be the case in 2023. While those events draw hundreds of thousands of in-person attendees and millions of television viewers, there is another rite of the season that, while lacking in participation numbers, elicits a similar passion for one kind of flower, the rose.
It begins on the first Tuesday after Jan. 1 and continues for about six weeks as a team of volunteers descends each morning upon the Rose Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens to partake in the very labor-intensive task of pruning the some 4,000 roses that cover the 3-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.
Organizing the army of amateurs 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 scores of rows of the prized plants.
“The potential!” exclaimed volunteer Emmy Davis when asked to explain the reason for her dedication last Sunday. Davis has been been a “Grateful Deadheader” for three years.
“The symmetry,” said Diana Britt, who for eight years has made the pilgrimage to the garden and was at Davis’ side working an information table at the garden. “It’s very exciting,” she continued, “because you know in April it will be beautiful.”
There is a reason why the group begins on the first Tuesday of the New Year, but it has nothing to do with the weather or the growth cycle of a rose.
“We wait for the people who were out here for the Tournament of Roses to go back home,” Davis said, adding that the Huntington rose garden is a prime destination for those in town for the parade and ballgame from across the country.
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.
Each variety in the collection is labeled with its name, class and date of introduction, offering a resource for rose lovers. One of the more popular in recent years is called “Huntington’s 100th,” which was created by Carruth and named in honor of the institution’s Centennial Celebration. The Huntington was founded in 1919.
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, including “Huntington’s 100th,” which combines a soft pastel yellow with orchid pink and cream.
“Tom has forgotten more about roses than any of us will ever know,” Britt said with a rich laugh.