Portland's grand festival offers a fragrant bouquet of tradition, obsession, and old-fashioned fun.
The rose festival. For almost any longtime Portland resident, the words do not immediately conjure up an image of flowers. The annual gala hits town in late May with fireworks, dragon boats, concerts, auto racing, three parades, and a teeming carnival in Waterfront Park appointed with the standard hokum: a magnificent Ferris wheel, a digestion-challenging ride called the Kamikaze, and several infuriating games of chance that involve, say, tossing yellow Ping-Pong balls at goldfish bowls. The waterfront smells like fried dough, and the festival makes Portland sing with a small-town warmth. Rose Festival princesses wearing tiaras wave sunnily from parade floats. Dignified Royal Rosarians—older men, mostly, who serve as lords of a mythical realm, Rosaria—patrol the streets in dazzling white suits, white gloves, and straw boaters.
Dude, will you shut up? I'm trying to win one of these oversize Bart Simpson dolls here.
No, seriously, let us discuss the rose, for the rose is the delicate and almost secret delight at the heart of the festival. It is the star of the fiercely competitive Portland Rose Show, launched in 1889, and it's the prime attraction at the Rose Festival's most esteemed event—the Portland Rose Society brunch, held in Washington Park's world-famous test garden that boasts 610 rose varieties, including Tahitian Sunset, Dolly Parton, and Fragrant Cloud.
But there's something else, too: Roses grow in Portland, splendidly, amid the soft rains and the mild summer sunshine. Take a walk through almost any neighborhood and you will see bounties of roses planted in carefully tended gardens, shining emblems of a less heralded Portland.
The city is renowned these days for its Northwest cuisine and innovative urban planning. The national press is forever hailing Portland as an ecosmart, hikable, pet-friendly Shangri-La that lures the "creative class" with its urban forests and superlative lattes and microbrews. But for all its newfound chic, Portland harbors an earnest middle-American bonhomie that took root, arguably, in 1901, when a civic booster named Frederick V. Holman wrote a modest Oregonian piece headlined, "Let's Make Portland the Rose City." The great 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition—the West Coast's first world's fair—loomed, and Holman proposed that each Portlander plant 50 rosebushes. "We can charm every stranger and make him, and her as well, remember Portland as a city beautiful," Holman declared.
Portlanders had thrown up their city on the muddy banks of the Willamette River just a few decades before, and now, suddenly, the place was poised to welcome the world. Locals began planting, and by the fair's opening day, the parade route was abloom with 22 miles of roses. City fathers were destined to keep working the theme: In 1907 they launched the inaugural Portland Rose Festival, with the governor's daughter, Carrie Lee Chamberlain, reigning as Queen Flora.
Last June I decided to experience Portland's finest provincial delights by attending every one of the festival's rose events. I started, naturally, with the rose show. It was held at the Lloyd Center ice rink, and I arrived to find a host of stately individuals buzzing about in red blazers. These were the kingpins of the Portland Rose Society, avid backyard growers, hailing from myriad microclimates within the metropolis.
Soon the Rose Festival princesses arrived in their matching navy blue jackets and skirts and lined up at the door to the ice rink. The 2007 Rose Festival Queen, Elizabeth Larson, ceremoniously intoned, "I, Queen Elizabeth, Queen of Rosaria, now proclaim the 120th Portland Rose Show open." She cut a slender ribbon, and then, with poised reserve, the princesses stepped into the deiced rink, each arm in arm with a Rosarian.
I followed Taylor Smith, from St. Mary's Academy, as she was given a courtesy tour of some 2,000 blooms arrayed in vases on rows and rows of tables, her guide a former society president named Paul Raab. Genial and heavyset, with a bushy silver mustache, Raab explained the judges' criteria. "You want a good balance between the size of the blossom and the length of the stem," he said, "and you want the petals to spiral." He showed Smith a Love and Peace rose with a perfect spiral, its pink-blushed folds spinning inward with gossamer splendor. He pointed out a Black Jade, a crooked, poisonous-looking dark purple little flower, and she said, "Wow! It looks just like a spider!" Then he showed her some miniature crimson roses. "Oh," she said, "they're so cute!"
They were, actually, but what leapt out for me was how unwild—how unlike Oregon's primeval forests—the flowers were. These were tended artifacts nursed toward beauty by gardeners who patiently watered and weeded them and even, in some cases, propped the buds open with Q-tips. The roses told a story of caring and generosity; it was only natural that people would chatter away happily in their presence.
Still, one sinewy fellow remained aloof from the polite banter. Richard Parke, a retired ironworker, was squinting into a camera, photographing his own winning flowers. Parke gardens six or seven hours a day and would go on to capture 18 first prizes out of the show's 83 awards in categories ranging from Fragrant Rose to English Box. I asked him what he loves about roses and he said, "Competition. Years ago, I was on the swimming team in the army. I played football. I could run the 100-yard dash in full football gear in under 11 seconds. Roses are another form of competition."
A couple of days later I visited Parke's small yard, a 550-bush wonderland in the St. Johns neighborhood. He showed me around, weeding as he went. "This one's not a show rose," he said, pointing to a splendid orange red flower called a Reba McEntire. "It'll have to go. Look at the center of it—it's moosh." He snipped it. "And on this one," he said, "the leaves are too big." He brought out a special pair of scissors with blades serrated like the edge of a rose leaf. He clipped.
Soon we came to Parke's shed, which holds a mini cement mixer used to make what he calls "rose food," his own fertilizing blend of beef blood, bonemeal, kelp, alfalfa, and crushed glacial rock, among other things. "Roses eat a lot," Parke said. "They have a big appetite."
We kept walking, and Parke named each flower we passed. "There's Raphaela, which is a high-centered rose," he said, "and Rainbow's End, which has all the colors of the rainbow. And there's my Playboy. It has somehow converted itself into a climber." There were neat labels planted in the dirt next to each bush, but Parke never looked at them. I asked him why not. "Don't need to," he said, his voice softening almost imperceptibly. "These are my children."
The next morning I went to Washington Park for the Rose Society brunch. The meal was exclusive to members and distinguished guests of the Portland Rose Society, but the associated contest, Portland's Best Rose, welcomed the hoi polloi to come and choose their favorite flowers in the International Rose Test Garden. It was sunny out, and the terraced lawns were filled with citizens stooping over the blooms, sniffing. Many were long-standing aficionados. Walt Regan, 72, told me that he first got into roses when he was in the air force, in Grand Forks, N.D. "I bought a couple one winter and planted them outside under the dryer vent," he said. "For the dollar, you get more bloom and more pleasure out of roses than any other flower."
After a while, a hush fell on the crowd. Then, silently, with a courtly grandness, the white-suited Royal Rosarians appeared, marching along in neat rows with the princesses. They were proceeding down a brick path called the Queen's Walk, which is appointed, à la Hollywood Boulevard, with a host of little plaques honoring the one princess selected each year to become Rose Festival Queen. It was time to lay a new plaque. So now the Prime Minister of the Royal Rosarians, a towering attorney named Peter Glazer, cracked out a trowel. He and Queen Marshawna Williams, of Cleveland High School, bent to a small patch of wet concrete. They grinned ceremonially.
"Knights and Dames of Rosaria," Glazer pronounced once the plaque laying was done, "this concludes our ceremony…. May a rose ever bloom in each of your hearts."
I rode my bike home and, in time, I began looking anew at the rosebush that sits in my yard, left by the previous tenant. It is scraggly and choked by blackberries. I don't garden. Still, this spring somehow it bloomed. Red roses. I took one inside, eventually, and put it in a vase on the table.
PARKE'S PICKS Even if you can't make it to Portland during the festival, the city still promises you a rose garden this summer at spots handpicked by prizewinning grower Richard Parke.
INTERNATIONAL ROSE TEST GARDEN IN WASHINGTON PARK More than 8,000 rosebushes embellish terraced courtyards and downtown views. Don't miss the Shakespeare Garden with its plaque reading, of all flowers methinks a rose is best. 400 SW Kingston Ave.
LADD'S ADDITION Volunteers help tend 3,500 roses in this historic district with a diagonal street pattern inspired by Pierre L'Enfant's layout for Washington, D.C. Bounded by SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Division Street, and 12th and 20th avenues.
PENINSULA PARK ROSE GARDEN Lantern-style streetlights, stone pillars, and a nearly 100-year-old fountain decorate a sunken rose garden. North Albina Avenue between Ainsworth Street and Rosa Parks Way.
Photography courtesy PDPhoto.org
This article was first published in March 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.