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Gardens bloom with Guadalupe roses


Perhaps only a garden docent, one who guides visitors around beautifully arranged gardens, can actually observe what gardens do to people. Indeed, a properly appointed garden can make subtle suggestions to the spirit. Such a garden can put a Type A adult at ease, as well as prompt a rambunctious child to pause at the sight of an exotic bloom.

Not so surprising then that a prosaic gardening catalogue, like Jackson & Perkins, could contain the hint of an intriguing story about American Catholic ethnic identity. The story concerns the Our Lady of Guadalupe rose, the company’s latest addition to the millions of roses in bewildering variety sent to market each year. A percentage of the proceeds from the “Our Lady” rose sales go to Latino scholarships.

The story, in brief, is that a parish priest suggested to a rose grower that Jackson & Perkins develop a new rose just at the time the United Farm Workers -- who work the J&P acreages -- had the same idea. Jackson & Perkins adopted the plan, the rose was developed and a cardinal blessed the result, now blooming in thousands of gardens around the United States.

All of which suggests that even the largest grower of roses in the world needs a little divine intervention now and then.

The first Our Lady of Guadalupe roses appeared on a frozen hilltop in Mexico in 1531, when Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to an Aztec peasant named Juan Diego. She instructed him to gather flowers at the top of Tepeyac hill as proof of her appearance. In the frozen ground, Juan Diego found roses in abundance.

The apparitions produced one of history’s most famous icons, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, revered throughout the Americas. From the earliest depictions, the roses have been of multiple colors, with reds and pinks certainly in the palette.

Naming a rose is serious business for the folks at Jackson & Perkins, a well-established mail-order nursery based in Medford, Ore., which sends out more than 35 million pieces of garden literature each year and ships more than 3 million roses and other plants directly to customers.

Those involved in the company’s plant-naming process are keenly aware that a rose by just any name may not bring sweet commercial success. “We are constantly on the lookout for new plant names and associations,” says executive Bill Ihle, who features in the “Our Lady” rose tale.

Ihle was baptized a Roman Catholic five years ago at St. Victor’s, a Los Angeles-area church whose pews often hold Hollywood’s famous. There, he was befriended by the church’s soft-spoken, no-nonsense administrator, Msgr. George Parnassus, who facilitated Ihle’s conversion.

The new Catholic was simultaneously quickly moving up the Jackson & Perkins ranks and, in time, was transferred north to the company’s headquarters. Despite the distance, the priest and former parishioner remained friends.

A conversation the pair had during one of Ihle’s return visits to Los Angeles is a key to the story. “The monsignor was ruminating about the church,” said Ihle, “and he leaned forward and said quietly, ‘You know, you really should have a rose named for Our Lady of Guadalupe. She’s so important to the Hispanic community’ ” -- and in Los Angeles, 45 percent of the population is Hispanic.

When Ihle returned to Oregon, he learned that Parnassus wasn’t the only one ruminating about the Virgin Mary. He almost immediately attended a Jackson & Perkins meeting with the United Farm Workers union -- “called to name new roses. One name that came up was Our Lady of Guadalupe,” said Ihle. UFW members tend the company’s 9 million roses in fields just outside Bakersfield, Calif., and the UFW logo is prominently displayed on each Jackson & Perkins rose label.

Clearly, the Our Lady rose was meant to be. However, it’s a fairly long process to get a rose to market, Ihle says. A plant’s color, scent, ease of growth and resistance to disease are just a few of the details to be ironed out. “Once we decide on a name, we have to find a rose that is appropriate. We were very specific when it came to ‘Our Lady.’ Juan Diego came down the mountain with roses of many colors. The consensus was that rose -- a silvery pink, to be exact-- would be the color of choice,” he said.

The new rose joins earlier top sellers such as the Diana, Princess of Wales; the Veteran’s Honor; the Barbara Bush rose; the John F. Kennedy; and the Mister Lincoln. “For many people, for whom gardening is a passion, roses are evocative of love, respect and honor. Their names allow people to make yet another emotional contact with their gardens,” he says.

Laying the groundwork for “Our Lady’s” debut took months of work and, in the case of one busy dignitary, a little holy finagling. Jackson & Perkins officials were keen to have Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, bless the rose at its Sept. 21, 2000, dedication ceremony in downtown Los Angeles.

Ihle tried contacting Mahony in hopes he’d say yes, but to no avail. According to Parnassus, it took the memory of another icon of the Hispanic community, that of the late César Chávez, to snare the busy archbishop. Chávez’s farm labor movement was born in California’s famously fertile Central Valley, now home to much of Jackson & Perkins’ agricultural production.

Last year, when UFW president Arturo S. Rodriguez telephoned Mahony on behalf of Jackson & Perkins, talk turned to Mahony’s efforts years ago -- while he was auxiliary bishop of Fresno -- to bridge the gap between the striking workers and the growers who employed them.

Rodriguez slipped in an invitation for Mahony to bless the Our Lady rose -- and got the answer he sought.

Some 50 Jackson & Perkins UFW workers from growing fields near Bakersfield were at “La Placita,” Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in downtown Los Angeles, to see Mahony bless the rose.

Just a year after its introduction, the Our Lady of Guadalupe rose, at $15.95 apiece, is a steady seller for the mail-order company. Ihle estimates the rose will raise about $100,000 for Latino community assistance and scholarships nationwide.

And yes, in a sense, the blessing was a commercial event. Yet for all those present, said pastor Parnassus, there was no denying that this rose, the Our Lady of Guadalupe, “held a much deeper meaning.”

Hawaii-born Lorna Corpus Sullivan writes a garden column for the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen newspaper and is a garden docent at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001