Stop and Smell the Roses

The Ringling Museum Rose Garden Gets a Makeover

Its first since 2004, says curator Kai Sacco, who explains why.

By Ilene Denton April 28, 2020

Belinda's Dream, one of 30-plus hearty varieties of rose bushes recently planted in Mable's Rose Garden at the Ringling Museum.

While the coronavirus epidemic has temporarily shut down the Ringling Museum’s galleries and bayfront grounds, Kai Sacco, the horticulturist in charge of Mable’s Rose Garden, has been busy finishing up the first replanting of the beloved garden since 2004.

Widespread disease issues had taken their toll, especially among the older bushes, says Sacco, who replanted the inner garden—the first three rows surrounding the gazebo—with more than 30 disease-resistant varieties in a zigzag pattern to increase aeration. Among them are the beautiful orange striped Frida Kahlo and the lush pink Belinda’s Dream, as well as other evocatively named roses as the Brindabella Purple Prince and the Republic of Texas (yellow, we imagine).   

Mable Ringling, with help from her gardening staff, completed the original planting of her rose garden in 1913. At more than 27,000 square feet, it was designed in a circular Italianate wagon wheel pattern with charming sculptures of courting couples scattered about. According to the Ringling Museum website, the rose garden fell into disrepair in the 1930s and 1940s. The last major replanting was in 2004, earning Mable’s Rose Garden recognition two years later as “the most outstanding All-American Rose Selections Public Rose Garden in the nation.”

None of Mable’s original rose bushes remain, of course; “she did frequent replanting to keep the roses vibrant and fresh,” says Sacco. The oldest bushes removed in this current replanting were 16 years old.

On May 18, Sacco will give an online talk about the renovations to the rose garden as part of the Ringling’s virtual programs for members. Sacco calls it a “master course” on the methodology behind the rose garden replanting, as well as tips on growing roses in Florida soil.  Ringling Museum members can get details and tickets here.

He says he hopes to replant the remaining two rose beds sometime within the next two years, depending on budget. (The Ringling, like the region's other cultural institutions, has taken a big hit in lost revenues due to the epidemic.)

Among Sacco’s favorite hearty new rose bushes is the Ducher, “a simple and unassuming white rose bush with a light scene. In the four months since it was planted, it’s grown four feet; very impressive. Every time I visit it, it seems to have grown two inches.” His favorite rose in the entire garden is the McCartney “a gorgeous Barbie pink with a fruity fragrance; it’s a fan favorite.” And, yes, it’s named after the famous Beatle.

Sacco says he enjoys “playing rose detective” when visitors to the rose garden ask him to locate an old favorite by the look or fragrance. “I’m teaching people how to treat the replanting as a treasure hunt: is your old favorite still there?” he says.

“I guarantee them that even if it isn’t, they will have a new favorite soon.”


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