written by Anna Bird | photos courtesy of Portland International Rose Test Garden
Portland is known for many things—beer, food, bridges and the youngest retirees in history, according to Portlandia. Going further back than the last decade, however, Portland has been known as the “City of Roses” for more than a century—but why? Roses are not native to the region, nor did any Portland gardeners reach international stardom by breeding the best rose blossoms. In fact, Portland’s affinity for roses started with a wedding gift and resulted in a WWI safe haven for European roses.
According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, the first rose bush in the Pacific Northwest was sent to Anna Marie Pittman in 1837 when she married Jason Lee, a missionary near Champoeg. Clippings from that bush were planted in Champoeg Park, Willamette University and the surrounding area when Oregon’s climate proved suitable for growing roses.
Georgina Pittock, wife to longtime publisher of The Oregonian, Henry Pittock, turned her love for roses into a social affair in 1889, and the Portland Rose Society was born.
In 1905, Portland held the Lewis and Clark Exposition, its only world’s fair, to attract people to the city and boost the regional economy. The organizers spent two years landscaping the 400-acre fairgrounds on the shores of Guild Lake, a once gleaming little lake that was turned into an industrial area soon after the fair.
To attract visitors to the exposition, the City of Portland planted around 10,000 bushes of the revered Madame Caroline Testout rose along Portland’s streets. The voluptuous Madame Caroline Testout rose is perhaps the most popular breed of hybrid tea rose, named after a nineteenth century French dressmaker in 1890.
At the end of the exposition, Mayor Harry Lane announced that he would build on the success of the fair and establish an annual rose festival. More than 1.5 million people attended the Lewis and Clark Exposition, and Lane thought a rose festival could have a similar economic impact. The first Rose Festival was held two years later in 1907, and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2015.
The groundwork for the “City of Roses” was pretty firmly established when WWI began and Europe’s hybrid roses were in danger of being destroyed by bombings. In 1918, hybridists from England began sending their roses to the International Rose Test Garden in Portland. The garden was dedicated in 1924, and partners with the Portland Rose Society.
Today, the symbol is pervasive on signage throughout the metro area. Portland’s association with this non-native flower is one of the quirks that makes the city so fascinating.