The Roses of the Rose City

By Stephanie Symonds Alberti

The City of Roses” or “Rose City“: The official nickname of Portland, Oregon.

There happens to be a bit of a mystery as to where Portland got its Rose City name. Regardless as to which story we believe to be the true story, there is one thing that is unquestionable about Portland: it takes the cake on rose varieties and rose gardens.

Many have been witness to the natural budding of colorful roses on sidewalks, park corners, and abandoned front yards in the Portland area. There is hardly any other smell as sweet and enticing as the rose. And you’d be surprised to know that all roses do not smell the same!

In 1889, the Portland Rose Society was founded. They promoted the planting of 20 miles worth of beautiful roses on Portland streets. From there forward would come a Festival of Roses (1907) which would be an annual festival held to this very day, every June. When the first World War was going on, there was a fear that European rose species would die out. With the hopes of preserving these delicate species, rose keepers (nursery owners) transported their roses to Portland, which had already, since 1888 seen the preservation of a specific large, French pink (hybrid) tea rose named “Madame Caroline Testout.” There is something about Oregon’s nutrient dense and clay-like soil that, alongside the excellent marine west coast climate, grows fantastic roses and grape varietals for excellent wines! But that is another story.

Continuing to protects these floral strains from the deaths of war, nursery keepers planted them in a large garden in Washington Park. This park became the first International Rose Test Garden in 1917. From there forward, people would send their rose strains to Portland for preservation, many from England. This visually pleasing garden is home to 8,000 rose plants with more than 550* differing species of rose over 4.5 acres. Not many are aware of such a variety in the rose family!

Did you know: A “hybrid” tea rose, like Madame Caroline Testout, has long, narrow buds on single, straight stems. Her flowers are often double, meaning lots of petals, and are quite fragrant. The whole plant grows upright and ranges from 2-5 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide.

For a list of the amazing rose breeds located at the Interntional Rose Test Garden, visit:

The Portland Rose Society, in 1904, began hosting the first Rose shows. Consisting of a few board members and a majority of volunteers, this society is quite knowledgeable and have much information, photographs, stories and knowledge of roses and the city. They are an active society of nursery growers and volunteers to this day.

But before there was the infamous International Rose Test Garden, that is the main highlight to the city’s reputation for roses, there was another location that was the first big rose garden. In fact, The City of Roses actually has a few little rose gardens here and there. However, of the bigger rose preservation areas, the original was Peninsula Park. In 1909, purchased for the price of $60,000, the 2 acre region had 8,900 plantings and 65 rose varieties. The official rose of Portland was also named and featured there. Guess which one it was? Madame Caroline Tesout, of course!
Peninsula park would remain the location for the annual rose shows until 1917, when, as previously mentioned, the International Rose Test Garden was moved to Washington Park. Despite the rose garden “moving” to another location, Peninsula park is quite an impressive park to see. Still sculpted to garden many roses, the park has a large, central fountain surrounded by bright colors of the roses around. It is a sunken rose garden, and has brick walkways and a music pavilion. The pavilion that overlooks the sunken garden is a site for many ceremonies and weddings. Of course this park, and in fact, all of the rose garden parks, are free to visit and tour. Peninsula park is located in North East Portland on North Rosa Parks Way.



Did you know? A sunken garden does not refer to its flowers, but to the garden’s design. By definition, it is “a formal garden set below the main level of the ground surrounding it.”

Some of the other mini rose gardens around Portland are:

The Ladd’s Addition neighborhood. This park contains four diamond-shaped rose gardens that were made in the late 1890s. The roses were planted and designed in 1909 by Emanuel Mische to have a stained glass effect (in the four diamond shaped gardens). This artistic park currently features 3,000 roses representing sixty varieties, some of which were popular in the early 20th century.

Surrounding the Portland metropolitan area are other parks featuring roses, some include:

  • Esther Short Park in Vancouver, Washington,
  • Avery Park Rose Garden in Corvallis,
  • Owen Rose Garden in Eugene, and Heirloom Roses in St. Paul.

To highlight some of the aspects of The International Rose Garden, here are some intriguing elements to this gorgeous park. Firstly, the park is dream-like when it is in full-motion blooming season. It has been described as a sensory overload. Not only are the roses so vivid and incredibly fragrant and varied in that, but the amount of butterflies and bees makes the scenery seem like a dream. The chirping birds, the floral breeze, the stunning greenery, all make for an excellent day trip. The ideal time to visit this park is between May and September, with this author’s preference being the month of August.


And there is much more to this park: There is an amphitheater located at the far end of the park entrance that hosts many events and classical music performances. In the summer time, you will find people picnicking, taking in some sun, and practicing monologues in and around the amphitheater. There is a Shakespearean garden, formerly featuring flowers that William Shakespeare mentioned in his works, a Gold Medal garden featuring all the award-winning roses, a miniature rose garden (1 of 6), and a Rose Garden Store. The park also offers Rose Garden Tours, free of charge!


Did you know? Portland features a Rose Festival Queen each year? The Queens Walk is a brick walkway at the side of the garden with a bronze star honoring each Rose Festival queen since 1907. You can see their names and years on the walkway!

Sources: (Portland Rose Society Website) (Portland Parks and Recreation) (Wikipedia on Rose Garden of Portland) (Brief history of Peninsula Park, Portland Oregon),_Oregon (Wikipedia Information on Roses of Portland Gardens) (Rose Garden, Portland Neighborhood) (Article, Roses of the International Rose Garden)