This is a wonderful small town for historians, geologists and lovers of heritage roses. Being all three, I’m glad it is so close to Santa Cruz. It is the site of one of the early Spanish missions, and later became an important stage-coach stop throughout the 1800s. Part of the town is now a State Park, and because 4th graders study California history, more than 40,000 of them visit the Mission and surrounding area every year. In front of the Mission is a square plaza. Next to the Mission and plaza is an escarpment- the trace of the San Andreas Fault. On one side of the plaza is the Plaza Hotel, built by the Zanetta family, and the Castro-Breen Adobe. And across the plaza from the Mission is Plaza Hall, built by the Zanettas as their home. I’ve visited San Juan Bautista many times. Twenty five years ago, I used to be an aide in some 4th grade classrooms, and accompanied them on their field trips there. Once, I was explaining to my group of students about the fault and how the Mission was on the Pacific tectonic plate, and the field below was on the North American tectonic plate. One of the boys went running down the escarpment and called up about being on the North American plate, then hopped back to the Pacific plate, then back to North American, etc., etc. In the 1990s, there were some Scottish- Victorian balls held in the upstairs hall in Plaza Hall. I remember it being very hot in the hall during the dance, but they were held in the winter, so going out on the balcony at night was freezing! That hall isn’t used anymore, as the exterior stairs are in bad shape, and I’m told there are other structural upgrades needed to meet modern codes.
More recently, my visits there have been in regard to roses. There is a treasure-trove of heritage roses around the town. The biggest plant of Niles Cochet anyone has ever seen is in a private yard in town. A White Maman Cochet is along a driveway near a local park. La Reine grows in an alleyway near downtown. And the cemetery has many roses, some identified, some not. On the fence in front of the Castro-Breen Adobe is a beautiful Musk rose, similar to “Secret Garden Musk Climber”, and a small, struggling plant of Bloomfield Courage. In 2007 we didn’t know what rose it was, but State Parks allowed us to take a few cuttings to propagate for the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden. The plant at the adobe was trying to grow back from what had at one time been a large plant- the stump is still there, but the location gets a lot of shade from a nearby tree. The rose there now is no bigger than it was four years ago, but the cuttings grew very well. The one we planted on the toolshed fence has completely covered its part of the fence, and would like to add to its territory at the expense of the other fence roses.
The Zanetta family played a large part in the rose history of the town. They had a garden behind their house which included the Rose of Castile. I have a copy of the obituary of the Zanetta’s daughter, Mariquita (Mary), who died in 1942 at the age of 89. As a child, when someone in town died, she and her mother planted a rose on the grave. Her first husband was Patrick Breen, whose family had been in the Donner party, and who lived at the Castro-Breen Adobe. He died soon after, and she later married P.E.G. de Anza (whose mother was a Castro). Both de Anza and Castro are well-known names in this part of California, being descendants of the earliest settlers from Mexico after the establishment of the missions, and owners of much of the Central Coast area land before Americans swindled them out of it. I love this quote about the wedding from the newspaper (San Juan Mission News, Aug 14, 1942):
” During the impressive ceremony, Indians strewed Castilian rose petals, as was the custom in those romantic days, for her to tread on from the Mission across the Plaza to her parential home, the “Zanetta Home.”
By the 1980s, the Zanetta’s garden had deteriorated, and State Parks removed many of the old once-blooming roses. Then they decided to make a new period garden there. Frances Grate was a consultant on this project and made recommendations for roses, and a site plan. It wasn’t strictly followed, but a rose garden was made there, with nice brick pathways and underplantings of herbs and perennials. There are also some very old trees.
Frances also consulted on the nearby Spanish era garden, a picnicking area with resident chickens. That area also has large old trees and many heritage roses, many of which were from Frances’ plan.
I wish I could say that the roses of San Juan Bautista were thriving, but sadly, many are not. A State Park with a limited budget can’t afford to hire professional gardeners to care for the gardens. The safety of the more than 40, 000 4th graders a year is a concern in a rose garden- the roses can’t be allowed to grow into the pathways and drape over the fences. Pruning and other care is mainly done by park maintenance workers, and State Parks can’t afford to provide the training for the special care of own-root heritage roses in central California. Most people think all roses are treated the same way, and I wouldn’t expect maintenance workers to know that once bloomers and repeat bloomers or modern roses and heritage roses should be treated differently. But it has been to the detriment of the roses. In the cemetery across town, maintenance is done as cheaply as possible, resulting in some roses being lost to weed-whackers and mowers. In both areas, people have cut off new canes, probably thinking they were rootstock suckers. So many roses are on their last legs (or canes) because of such misguided workers.
But don’t lose hope. I was there Tuesday at the invitation of Alan Kemp. He is part of San Juan Bautista Mission Plaza History Association, a 501-c3, a non-profit, cooperating agency. His hope is to restore the garden, get a regular group of trained volunteers to maintain the garden, and make it into a place that can be used as a money-maker for State Parks, such as a wedding and music venue. Frances Grate was also there Tuesday. The rose restoration group is up to 4 people- Alan, Carol- a volunteer gardener who was there Tuesday, and is anxious to learn the proper care of the roses, another member who is described as “a recovering heritage rose addict” and now Alan’s wife has decided to get involved.
Alan, Frances, Carol and I spendt much of the day discussing the roses in both the Plaza Hall garden and the Spanish era garden, how and when to prune, and providing much needed and much appreciated guidance. Frances often added comments about why certain roses were selected, and reasons for planting certain roses or other plants in certain locations. I really enjoyed hearing those comments.
After lunch, I drove Alan around, pointing to large old roses around town, then to the Cemetery, to introduce him to my rose friends there. First was “La Dama Blanca” as Mel Hulse had named it. I’ve since realized that it is Gloire Lyonnaise. We have propagated it and grow it at the back of the Heritage, where it can get as big as it is in the cemetery.
Then “Jose A. Africa”, a light red rose of undetermined class, which we now grow near “La Dama Blanca”. Nearby is Lady Mary Fitzwilliam, which Jeri Jennings reported as doing poorly in the spring, but it’s doing well now. I made sure Alan smelled that one. I looked at where we had once found Harison’s Yellow, but it has given up. Weed-whacked too many times. The rose we used to think was Devoniensis is a highlight of the cemetery. It has one cane-turned-tree-trunk and 2 small new canes at the base. It had two small new canes four years ago, but they got cut off. Man I wish I could keep well-meaning people with no knowledge away from old rose plants! They can survive being ignored, but they can’t survive ignorance. Nearby is a small Hermosa, doing very poorly- more deadwood than living at the moment.
And finally a visit to “Flagpole” a hybrid perpetual by the Veteran’s Memorial plot. It rusts terribly, but the flower is a beautiful, very double deep pink, and quite fragrant. We also have this at the Heritage, planted just this year with the other found HPs. On the way back to town, I stopped by the lot where “Honeymoon Cottage Purple” should be, but didn’t see it. Jeri said it was large and happy in the spring, so I’m hoping I just missed it in the weeds. [Update- yes, it's doing just fine.]
In the two days since my visit, I have sent several emails to Alan and Carol, with pictures of how the garden used to look and a good selection of rose books for the State Parks library (they actually have some money in their budget for books). Anyone interested in joining their efforts should contact me, and I will forward your email address to Alan. A small but dedicated group of trained volunteers can bring back the beauty of these roses.