In The Garden

By staff May 1, 2006

Ringling Museum's historic rose garden is a scent to behold.

If they don't bloom in your own garden, one of the best ways to stop and smell the roses is to visit Mable Ringling's historic rose garden on the grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

Mable completed her beloved garden in 1913, before any development took place on their 66-acre estate, on a design pattered after a wagon wheel motif. "Mable cherished roses, and I think she would be delighted to see how beautifully [this garden] has progressed and the awards it has garnered, as well as the number of people from around the world who visit and enjoy that part of the estate," says Ron Mallory, who, as the museum's horticulturist for 18 years, is curator of the rose garden.

Today, as the site of annual festivals, weddings, photo shoots, lectures and an increasing number of visitors, "Mable's Rose Garden is truly an attraction in itself," says museum executive director Dr. John Wetenhall.

Under Mallory's longtime guidance, Mable's historic Rose Garden has received prestigious accreditations from the American Rose Society and the Award of Excellence for a Demonstration Rose Garden. In 2004 the garden was accepted by the All-American Rose Selections (AARS), entitling the Ringling Museum to receive new varieties of roses annually to enhance the existing garden. Only 130 public gardens across the nation are accredited by the AARS, and the Ringling Museum is only one of three in Florida (the other two are Walt Disney World and the Sturgeon Rose Garden in Largo). Mallory himself recently achieved Consulting Rosarian status from the American Rose Society.

The museum also has been designated a demonstration test garden-one of only 20 in the United States-and the separate Ringling Test Rose Garden is flourishing with 137 varieties. The nation's top growers send hybrids to the museum to evaluate how they grow. "They are then scored on points in order to be selected as an All-American Rose," Mallory says. "There are millions of dollars riding on achieving this designation. If the trial run is successful, then the hybrid roses will be patented."

Mallory's affinity for these fragrant, delicate blooms emanates from his youth. "When I was seven or eight years old, just after World War II, my mother had a victory garden. One of my chores was to take care of it. I also took care of my grandmother's rose garden. I enjoyed it so much that neither of them had to remind me to do these chores."

As Mallory points out, roses have a long and colorful history. They have been symbols of love, beauty, war and politics. There is fossil evidence of roses 35 million years old. In nature, the genus Rosa has some 150 species spread throughout the northern hemisphere, from Alaska to Mexico and including northern Africa. Garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, probably in China. In the days of the Roman Empire, roses were grown extensively in the Middle East. They were used as confetti at celebrations, for medicinal purposes and as a source of perfume. Roman nobility established large public rose gardens in the south of Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the popularity of roses seemed to rise and fall depending on gardening trends of the time.

During the 17th century, roses were in such high demand that royalty considered them, and rose water, as legal tender.

"It fascinates me to know roses go back to ancient China and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and that ancient roses only bloomed once a year," says Mallory. "Now, modern roses bloom all year with just a 45-day rest."

The cultivation of a rose from fragile seedling to brilliant bloom is a delicate process, but Mallory takes it in stride. "Many people are intimidated by roses," he says. "Yet if you attend to them properly they are not that difficult to grow, particularly if you choose a good garden rose over a show rose and stay away from those not suitable for our area."

Currently the garden has more than 1,000 rose plants, including eight tree roses, 264 hybrid teas, 53 floribundas, 36 grandifloras, 506 miniature roses, 64 shrubs and 73 old garden roses.

One of Mallory's hybrid roses has been registered with the American Rose Society. "The first one that was registered was the Mable Ringling rose. It has a fiery red hue with just a hint of yellow and is particularly fragrant," he says. "The second is the Grandmother Emma rose, named after my grandmother. I'd like to name the third after a circus person, but I haven't decided who yet. I'll have to get permission from the family when I do."

Mallory's success can also be measured on an international level. "I feel privileged that three ex-presidents of the American Rose Society, as well as Dr. Tommy Carnes, president of the World Federation of Rose Societies, have visited the rose garden," he says.


Tips from garden curator Ron Mallory.

Because of our sandy soil, fertilize twice a month, each time using only half of the recommended dose listed on the product package.

Roses are heavy drinkers and need three to five inches of water weekly.

At the first sign of black spots, spray the plant, including the underside, with fungicide and insecticide together.

Cut back roses during the third week in January for flowers to begin blooming April 1.

Deadhead your rose bushes by removing spent blooms daily to promote plentiful new blooms.

Easy-to-grow roses: Don Juan (deep crimson), Mr. Lincoln (brilliant red), Memorial Day (pale lavender), Julia Child (a pretty yellow that does not fade).

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