Whether we’re talking about the world-famous Rose Line in Paris, The War of the Roses, Henry VIII’s flagship The Mary Rose, or Pete Rose, the word “rose” is intertwined with human history like the branches of a climbing rose on a trellis. Plainly stated, people love roses. And nowhere is that more evident than at the E. M. Mills Memorial Rose Garden. Located near Syracuse University at the western entrance to Thornden Park, the garden is lovingly maintained through the cooperative efforts of the Syracuse Department of Parks and Recreation and the dedicated volunteers of the Syracuse Rose Society. According to its website, it’s the oldest continuously-operating rose society in the U.S.
My introduction to the group occurred at the CNY Blooms Flower Show in March 2011. There I met member Ken Renno, who explained that the two-acre garden was dedicated in 1924 and that as of fall 2010, was home to nearly 4,000 plants; representing 28 rose classes and 358 individual species. And while not the largest public rose garden in the nation, the Mills Garden has earned recognition as one of the best. In 2010, it earned second-place honors in the “America’s Best Rose Garden” competition sponsored by the American Rose Society. This award was both fitting and proper as Dr. Mills was the founder of the SRS.
In 1872, 24-year-old Edmund Mead Mills arrived in Lafayette, NY. Newly-ordained as a Methodist minister, Mills assumed his first pastorate in the central New York area, a place he would call home for the next 50 years. In addition to his deep religious faith, Mills had one other passion; roses, the love of which had been inspired by his mother. And wherever he lived and preached, be it Wolcott, Elmira, Ithaca or Penn Yan, Mills planted roses. By 1897, Reverend Mills had earned a doctorate degree and resettled in Syracuse. At his city home, he planted over 400 roses in his own garden. In 1911, Mills and seven other dedicated rose fanciers founded the Syracuse Rose Society. The organization’s original goals remain the same today; to foster the love of roses, community service and civic beautification. Mills was elected as the society’s first president, a post he occupied for the next 11 years. In 1922, he left Syracuse and moved to California to assume the presidency of the American Rose Society, but returned two years later when the garden bearing his name was dedicated.
Ken’s enthusiasm and his love of roses piqued my curiosity. So after wishing him a temporary farewell, I departed the flower show. Despite the blustery March day, I drove to Thornden Park for a first-hand look at the garden. While viewing the place that dreary gray afternoon, the only word that came to mind was, “desolate.” But it was still a golden opportunity to see the place before it sprang back to life. The roughly U-shaped grounds represent classic garden symmetry. In the center of the parcel stands an eight-sided gazebo. From each side, a brick walkway extends to the perimeter and, if viewed from overhead, would resemble the spokes of a giant wheel. Every other walkway passes beneath a series of arched trellises. Though shrouded in burlap, each was covered with the boughs of climbing roses. The alternate pathways were flanked by dozens of neatly-spaced rose bushes, each in a raised wooden planter complete with identification plaque. The balance of the property was filled with beds of tea roses, miniature roses and floribunda. There were plenty of thorns everywhere, but no blossoms – yet. Acting upon an invitation from Ken, I planned a second visit in mid-May, and as a photographic reference point, snapped a picture of a hybrid rose named “Moonlight.” According to its plaque, it had been cultivated in 1913, which coincidentally marked a significant milestone in the history of the rose society as well.
That same year, the SRS established its first rose garden on a three-acre parcel, planting some 2,500 roses at the site. In 1916, the plants were moved onto the campus of Syracuse University. But in 1922, the group was forced to relocate as the university needed the land to accommodate an expansion of its forestry school. It was then that the society moved its garden to Thornden Park.
Make no mistake; caring for 4,000 roses is a big job. Roses require pruning, applications of fertilizer, pesticides and, for some varieties, staking. So every Wednesday morning from mid-April until mid-October (and sometimes into early November), a cadre of loyal members, collectively known as the Wednesday Work Crew, descends upon the garden to nurture and maintain its charges. Replacements, when needed, are provided by the Parks Department, while newly-developed hybrid roses are contributed by the American Rose Society. Over the course of the growing season, members enthusiastically contribute thousands of hours of volunteer labor. I witnessed their efforts first-hand during my second visit.
I returned on Wednesday, May 11. Compared to that crummy March day, the place was greening up nicely, with new leaves appearing everywhere; but alas, still no blossoms. I soon located Ken, hard at work with his string trimmer, tidying up around the raised beds. After getting reacquainted, I peppered him with questions about the garden. He confessed that as a relatively new SRS member, he was not as knowledgeable as some of the more seasoned members, finally suggesting; “You know who you ought to talk to, Dorothy Storm, she’s our oldest active member and she can tell you everything about the place.” So after snapping his photo, I wandered over near the tool shed and found Dorothy relaxing in the shade, enjoying a short break.
And Ken was absolutely right. At a sprightly 79 years young, Dorothy Storm has been an active SRS member for over 40 years. Her enthusiasm for the society is infectious, as is her love of roses. Not only does she attend every Wednesday work party, but at her home in Camillus, she cares for 400 roses in her own garden. She went on to explain that during the height of the growing/flowering season, members often schedule extra work sessions. By Dorothy’s estimation, members donate roughly 2,000 hours of labor each spring, summer and autumn. Autumn, too? Yes. Because the city remains warmer than outlying areas, many of the roses continue blossoming well into November. So if you do the math, since 1913, the SRS members have contributed roughly 200,000 hours of unpaid labor to maintain their gardens. Dorothy also told me that one rose, “Lady Ursula,” was the oldest in the garden, having been planted in 1924. “You simply must get a picture of her,” she insisted. And I promised I would, vowing to return in June when the blossoming cycle was in full swing.
Worth the Wait
In celebration of its first centennial in June 2011, the Syracuse Rose Society hosted the American Rose Society’s Miniature Rose Show and Conference. The event and the participants it attracted bore testament and living proof that Dr. Mills’ vision burns as brightly as it did a century ago.
The Syracuse Rose Society is always looking for new members. If you love roses and would like to join fellow enthusiasts, visit:
• www.syracuserosesociety.org for additional information, meeting times and an online application.
• American Rose Society at
Annually, on or about the middle weekend of June, the Syracuse Rose Society hosts an open house event at the Mills Garden. While February 7 is recognized as National Rose Day, the SRS, bowing to climatic realities, celebrates the unofficial holiday during its open house. On February 7, 2011, Syracuse received another three inches of snow, the high temperature was a balmy 34 degrees and “Lady Ursula” was still in the midst of her long winter sleep.
• From I-81South: Exit at E. Adams St. Turn right onto E. Adams and follow it to the end, where Adams meets Ostrom Ave. Turn right onto Ostrom Ave. Drive one block to the first left, where you’ll find the west entrance to Thornden Park. The Mills garden is on the corner.
• From I-81 North: Exit at Harrison St, continuing south to E. Adams. Turn left on E. Adams and follow to Ostrom Ave. Turn right onto Ostrom Ave. and continue one block south to the park entrance.
• Except when it’s reserved for weddings or special events, the garden is open and free of charge to the public from dawn to dusk. According to SRS members, peak viewing time runs from early June until late-July, though blossoming often continues into early-November. Try to visit on a warm windless June day (National Rose Month) and prepare to be intoxicated by the combined fragrance of some 200,000 individual blooms.
by Rich Finzer