Portland International Rose Test Garden

Portland, Oregon

by Dawn Woolcott

A fear of collateral damage sent shockwaves throughout the gardening world. World War had erupted in Europe in 1914 and some of the world’s great treasures were in danger. Art works were moved to safer locations. The Louvre in Paris hid sculptures such as the Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo behind steel plates. Others behind sandbags. Many items were relocated to what was hoped to be a neutral country for safekeeping. Every curator of every museum had a treasure to safekeep from aerial bombardment. But for the world’s horticulturists, how do you save a plant in the ground? Hybridists invest years and even decades in cross-breeding and testing flowers. In 1914, the horticulturists of Europe were scrambling to rescue their life’s work from possible annihilation. 

In a cultural exchange of goodwill, many European rose breeders chose to ship their precious cargo half way across the world to Portland, Oregon for safekeeping. For a love of gardening knows no borders. 

portland rose garden

How did Portland become the recipient? Timing is everything. Already known as “Rose City,” Portland had a reputation for its love of roses.  A year after war broke out in Europe in 1914, a rose hobbyist named Jesse Currey began working to gain support for creating a public rose garden in Portland with the help of the American Rose Society president and Portland’s city park commissioner. The wheels of government move slowly though, and it wasn’t until 1917 when the proposed garden was approved. The growing city needed to find a spot for the park, and ended up with property in the hills overlooking the city that was recently available after a Poor Farm was relocated to Troutdale. By early 1918, hybridists began to send their rose varieties to Portland. It has been a destination test garden ever since.

Portland’s reputation as the Rose City began with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Billed as a combination business and economic fair and a world exposition, Portland hosted the celebration in 1905. Being easy to propagate, roses were a cost-efficient way to landscape, as well as being beautiful and thriving in the mild northwest climate. In time for the Expo, Portland had 20 miles of roses, mostly all a variety called Mme Caroline Testout, planted along its streets, many of which are still there today.

rose mme caroline testout
Madame Caroline Testout

The roses earned Portland the nickname of “Rose City.” The name has stuck. It also has a sub-nicknames such as “Bridge City” for all the bridges crossing the Willamette River, “Stumptown” for all the trees that were cut down to build the city, as well as more newly minted “Pedal City” for all the commuters who choose the bicycle. But “Rose City” is the most appropriate, with the Rose Test Garden, the coliseum named “The Rose Garden,” and the annual Rose Festival and Grand Floral Parade held in June just as roses are coming into bloom. Every year the Rosarians choose a Rose Queen who gets their name enshrined on a Rose Garden plaque. 

The first Rose Society in Portland was formed as early as 1889 by Georgiana Pittock, wife of the newspaper publisher Henry Pittock, and who lived at what is now known as Pittock Mansion – an elegant home overlooking downtown Portland, now a museum and open for tours.  

The new Portland International Rose Test Garden was designed to especially take advantage of the beautiful views overlooking the city below. Rose Festival Queens have their name engraved in the brick walkways. A Shakespearean garden was relocated from east Portland’s Crystal Springs Garden in 1945 when under threat from an expanding golf course. The amphitheater with its grassy tiers has always been part of the overall design and is the perfect spot for a summer’s evening concert. The garden now contains more than 10,000 individual rose bushes, the majority of which are commercially available, although many are here being tested.

Portland Rose Garden
The Rose Garden amphitheater

The summer months are the perfect time to visit the Rose Test Garden and admission is always free. Rows and rows of over 10,000 well maintained roses are there to wander. Can you find your favorite? You might come away with a long list of favorites, as all are well-labeled. From miniatures to climbers, hybrid teas to floribundas, you are sure to find one with fragrance to knock your socks off and whose beauty is everlasting.  Sweet, sweet rose!


Visit the Portland International Rose Garden on one of these cruises that begin or end in Portland:

Columbia & Snake Rivers Cruise – American West

Portland to Clarkston

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Portland Rose Garden