So, Portland, Why Roses?

Well, it’s that time of year again. Between May 24th and June 9th, the city of Portland, Oregon celebrated the annual Portland Rose Festival. Many folks observed the celebration by watching the famously floral Rose Parade, the second largest in the country. Others indulged in concerts, and other events through the two weeks. Come June 5th, some may even partake in Portland’s very own Fleet Week, touring US Coast Guard and Canadian Naval vessels in town for the Festival. Still others, myself included, traveled to the Rose Festival Carnival on the waterfront. Because in my opinion the only proper way to celebrate something with the word “Carnival” in the title is to eat some deliciously unhealthy fair food. The fried Oreos were purely for research, I swear. Yet with all of these festivities this and every year, a relative newcomer to the city, like myself might begin to ask the question: why Roses?

In June of 2003, the city of Portland’s town council officially recognized “The City of Roses,” as its official nickname. So why do we associate this mid-sized metropolis on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers with roses? Well part of it might have to do with The International Rose Test Garden, up on the hill in Washington Park. The International Rose Test Garden was founded in 1917, on the suggestion of the Portland Rose Society. The aim was to create a garden that would protect European breeds of roses from the travesty of World War 1. The idea was initially proposed in 1915 but it would take two years before the Land Bureau approved the proposal. Today, the International Rose Test Garden is still going and has thousands of bushes dedicated to growing new species of roses. As the name implies, many of these breeds are unique to the Test Garden. Many are award winners in rose shows around the world. If you decide to visit the city it’s easily in the top ten locales to visit across the city. If you do, you’ll get a crash course in the different types of roses as well as the different categories of competition, ranging from looks to scent. If you’re up for a challenge, there’s a single breed of black rose in the garden, good luck finding it. Or maybe you can just chuckle at all the funny names for the plants. Horticulturalists are apparently on par with racing horse breeders in the field of excellent taxonomy.

But wait, go back and reread the start of that last paragraph. The International Rose Test Garden only exists because the Portland Rose Society was already active and available to advocate for it. So where did they come from? Well, the founder of the Society and supposedly the first person to coin the term “City of Roses,” was Leo Samuel. Mr. Samuel moved to Portland in 1871 and would make his fortune by founding the Oregon Life Insurance company. For what it’s worth, Samuel’s company is still in business today, with a beautiful building in downtown. If you’re a local, you probably know it as the Standard Insurance Company. As a hobby, Samuel grew roses outside his home, and even left a pair of pruning sheers on his porch, a quiet encouragement to passersby to help prune the beloved bushes. In 1889, Samuel would play a key role in helping to found the Rose Society, which soon began its first grand project. The Society planted rose bushes along twenty miles of the city’s roads. Their work was in service to the Lewis and Clark Exposition that was held in 1905.

The Lewis and Clark Exposition was a centennial celebration of the famous expedition that had first traveled down the Columbia River, mapping the territory. It was also, in many ways, a grand debutante ball for the city of Portland itself. Perhaps the most famous structure associated with the Expo was the Forestry Building, a stunningly massive log cabin structure built entirely from Oregon wood. The fair attracted exhibits from 19 states, as well as nations like Japan, Germany, France and the Philippines. The Lewis and Clark Exposition was such a success that while it wasn’t an official “World’s Fair,” it was considered to be on the same level as one, drawing about 1.6 million people to the city of Portland over the course of five months. In fact, in a speech at the closing ceremony, then-mayor Harry Lane suggested that Portland observe a festival of civic pride every year in the summer. Two years later, the first Rose Festival was held. It’s worth noting that many of the rose bushes planted by the Society are still growing to this day. Those rose bushes aren’t the only lingering manner in which Portland still lives in the shadow of the 1905 Expo. The city plays hosts to not one, but two convention centers, both the Oregon Convention Center in the Lloyd District and the Portland Metropolitan Exposition Center, closer to the original site of the Lewis and Clark Expo, originally built in the 1920’s for livestock expositions.

However, at the risk of getting a bit broad, it’s also worth looking at roses themselves. When you think about it, roses are like a victory lap for agricultural societies. Apart from using them to create syrup, roses don’t have a ton of practical applications. They’re pretty to look at and they smell nice but apart from ornamental purposes, roses are arguably useless. What’s more, roses themselves are difficult plants to grow. It’s somewhat telling that when I googled the phrase “how hard is it to grow roses,” for this article, the overwhelming majority of results were something along the lines of: Roses Are Easier than you Might Suspect, or Easy Ways to Grow Roses. If there’s a small cottage industry convincing people otherwise, I think it’s safe to assume that growing roses is a daunting task. Perhaps this toil is why we revere the rose. If you can grow roses, then you live in a fertile area, and for the vast majority of human history, fertile land has equated to wealth and culture. What’s more, Oregon has always been associated with fertility and agriculture. The state’s very name is a reference to an early report by Spanish explorers who commented that what is now southern Oregon would be perfect for growing oregano. Yep, the state of Oregon draws its name from the Spanish word for the spice, oregano.

By that logic, Portland’s association with roses seems almost predestined. It’s the largest city in a state that has always been a fertile paradise to travel towards. From the days of the Oregon Trail to the 1930’s when the Civilian Conservation Corps and local prosperity lured hundreds of young men to the state. The truth is of course far more checkered than that. If you want to idea of Oregon’s unspoken history, look up the tragic tale of the neighborhood of Vanport in North Portland. But I think civic pride is far more about ideals than it is about the truth. That’s why, for instance, Chicago has a flag with five red stars on it, each representing a disaster that the city has overcome in some way. It’s why New York City sometimes calls itself The Melting Pot to celebrate its history as the arrival point for millions of immigrants. The symbols we chose for ourselves are a reflection of what we value and what we strive towards. As such, Portland has chosen to represent itself with a piece of natural jewelry. Roses are beautiful to look at and smell, they’re inviting. That’s why for you a rose in Portland grows. The rose is Portland’s way of saying “please, come visit. Here you are welcome.” Sometimes that welcoming nature takes the form of a chintzy carnival on the waterfront, and sometimes it takes the form of a giant log cabin at the turn of the century. Either way, for all of its faults, I’m proud to call this city my home.


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