Portland, Oregon, has accrued quite a list of nicknames in the last 162 years: Bridgetown, Rip City, P-Town, PDX, Stumptown, People’s Republic of Portland, Beervana. But those of us with a smidgen of romance left in our hearts, the ones who have steadfastly refused to watch a single episode of Portlandia for three hideous seasons, know it only as Rose City.
We earned this sobriquet by way of climate: ours just happens to be damned near perfect for growing roses. (We can grow a mean banana slug and dripping carpet of moss, too, but mostly we get awards for the roses.) We’re so famous for it, in fact, that we gestate an annual Rose Festival all year long that is rebirthed each June as an ugly, squalling mass of tourists and tourist attractions that only loosely weaves itself around a rose theme. I’m not sure how a golf tournament, dragon boat race, military Fleet Week, pirate festival, ski race, fireworks, clowns, milk carton boat race, and an electric parade after dark raises the public consciousness about the loveliness of this delicate and ancient flower but then what do I know? I’m only a gardener.If you are like me (and prefer to forgo the gigantic clusterfrock of deep fried Twinkies and watered down soft drink slushies, sunburnt Ritalin candidates whining and clinging to unattentive parents who are desperately searching for the beer tent, and the most safety-unconscious-looking, paint-chipped portable amusement park rides this side of Reno with a mind-numbing acoustic cloud of garbled rock and roll music sprayed over the top of it all) you find the best way to enjoy a nice rose is simply to visit the garden. On another day.The International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park [map] is a bastion of beauty and silence if you go on a weekday morning. Daybreak, if you can manage it. I always see one or two other photographers there at dawn’s early light, struggling to set up their tripods with one hand while chugging strong coffee from a travel mug with the other. A serious photographer will time it perfectly so that the first soft rays gently illuminate the dew still glitttering on the petals. A dishonest hack brings a squirt bottle. The internet has spawned a growing throng of “freelance photographers” otherwise known as People Who Hope Spending Three Grand on a Camera Will Make Them An Artist and you see a lot of them wandering around Portland’s gardens and scenic views with 35 pounds of photography equipment harnessed to their necks and strapped to their crotches. Nothing makes a man prouder than when you notice the size of his lens.
I harbor no such illusions about my own level: I have a great eye and a couple aging cameras. I do what I can. Playing with the macro feature is now a full-blown addiction but I didn’t really master it until much later. The fun thing about the International Rose Test Gardens for a gardener, though, is the opportunity to see up close and personal what has heretofore only been breathed upon with longing in between the pages of a horticulture magazine. Full color glossies of velvety petals in just the right shade of pink to match the new bathroom curtains gets us all hot and bothered. We look forward to spring seed and planting catalogs like a college freshmen looks forward to his first issue of Hustler. Trips to the mailbox get manic; February is a long, trying month.
Then, when those glorious pages are finally spread out ceremoniously across our private desks, laps, and kitchen counters, we can practically smell the compost. Trembling fingertips reach for each new page corner and pull it open like the door to another surprise party. We suck air at the gorgeous photographs and breathe, “Oh. My. God. They have a variegated form now. That would look SO good between the creamy hemerocallis and the golden ninebark.” We hang on the words of our favorite local garden designers who are lucky enough to get interviewed from pages 26 to 32. How long has he been gardening Portland? Is he a real gardener or did he spring for a few Master Gardener’s courses? Floribundas or polyanthas? Bare root or pots? Coffee grounds–yes or no? Has he heard about the variegated one?
But it’s one thing to hear Mr. Expert say, “..and it performs beautifully in the Pacific Northwest…” and quite another to actually see it performing. We have to walk up to it, get in close, turn over leaves, fondle petals. We want more than a mere flirtation with David Austen, we seek a committed relationship. The Test Garden offers 9,525 roses in 610 species: speed dating, this is not.That’s why the Test Gardens are so fundamentally crucial. Some people come for the ambiance, some come for the view. Some are there to pad their Flickr portfolio. But it’s the dedicated Portland gardeners who are staring deeply into the tight rosettes of grandifloras and inspecting the strength of bud unions on hybrid teas with calculated scientific fervor. They are on a mission: they are taking mental notes for a backyard paradise.