My Grandmother’s Rose

We gardeners are a kooky bunch; our passion for plants can become downright obsessive. Clearly it’s no secret that I’m a bit of a nut when it comes to roses, but even I ask myself sometimes, why? While I appreciate the newer introductions (and you all know I am a super fangirl towards David Austin) it’s the older roses that really make my heart go pitter-pat, the roses with a history, a story, a connection to the past. So, ask me why I love them so much and I guess the truth of it lies somewhere in this story about my ancestor and her favorite rose.

Mary Jameson, seen in the photo above, is my great-great grandmother and of course we never met but she and my grandfather, Arthur Orcutt Lewis, were very close. In fact it was for her brother, who died quite young, that he was named. When my grandfather and my grandmother Celeste moved to their new home here in State College, he brought a cutting of her treasured ‘Dr. Van Fleet’ rose to live in their garden. As you know, when you take a cutting of a rose you are growing an exact genetic copy of the original so when Grandpa grew his Van Fleet rose it was basically the same as that which grew in his beloved grandmother’s garden. He and my grandmother moved two more times and with each new home he made sure to bring another cutting to the garden. Decades have passed yet all three of those roses are still alive today. In May of 2011, my mother, grandmother and I visited one of their old homes, knocked on the door, and asked the current tenants if we could take some cuttings of my grandfather’s Van Fleet rose for which they happily obliged. I’ve never been very good at getting roses to stay rooted for me but somehow all but 2 of the 6 cuttings we took that day rooted and grew wonderfully. It was my very important job to keep them happy and healthy until the following summer when two of them would go to their new homes (and two would stay here with us.)

Dr Van Fleet Rose | Hedgerow Rose

My grandfather passed away not too long ago but one of the many things he left behind was a treasure trove of family history in the form of published and bound books on our genealogy. From one of such books, The Jamesons in America, I found this excerpt about my great-great grandmother: “Mary Jameson…was born January 10, 1868 in Salisbury Point (now Amesbury) Massachusetts. She married December 29, 1892 to Edwin James Lewis son of John and Elizabeth (Jones) Lewis. He was born in Slough, England, December 1, 1870 and resided in Chicago, IL before moving to Amesbury, Massachusetts in July 1895. Mrs. Lewis was educated in the public school and gave some attention to the art of painting for which she had a natural gift. Since her marriage, she has been occupied with housekeeping and the care of her children.” I love that this description mentions her passion for art because I first came to “know” her through her watercolor paintings that have hung in my grandparents house for as long as I can remember. One, in particular, I have always been especially drawn to–a lovely portrait of her farm in New Hampshire where she eventually settled. On my wedding day, I wore her bracelet for my something borrowed and something old. She had inherited it from her sister, Katherine Jameson, and then it passed on to my mother.

Dr Van Fleet Rose 5 | Hedgerow Rose

Those four treasured roses I started from cuttings came through the winter and began to bloom beautifully early last June. One afternoon I was preparing for a visit from my mother and brother and I took this photo of them grouped together for the last time. I’m glad I did because I’ll have a reference to look back on as each rose plant gets bigger and bigger in their respective gardens. (Also shown in bloom is ‘La Reine’, ‘The Endeavour’, ‘Buff Beauty’ and ‘Comte de Chambord’.) Now, there are 2 of my great-great grandmother’s roses planted in our garden, and the other two divided between my mother’s garden in Ohio and my brother’s garden in Connecticut.


‘Dr. Van Fleet’ roses in bloom in our garden last June


The above photos were taken immediately after each cutting took root in 2011. I brought a photo of that very first blossom to share with my grandmother and it brought tears to her eyes, and subsequently mine too, to see that this little legacy of her husband’s and that of his grandmother is living on for future generations.


This photo of my great-great grandparents was taken on their wedding day in 1892. She was 24 years old and he was 22. My mother thinks I look a lot like my grandmother and that may be, but these are the only two photos I have of her so it’s hard to say. I often wonder, if she were alive today, what would she think of the life I’ve made? Would she be proud to know her great-great granddaughter is not only a wife and a mother but also making a living from her art? Would we talk about our gardens and our love of roses?

Dr Van Fleet Rose 2 | Hedgerow Rose

Dr. Walter Van Fleet (1857 – 1922) was and still is considered a very influential rose hybridizer. (Interestingly, Dr. Van Fleet was once part of a Utopian society in Tennessee. My grandfather was an expert on Utopian societies and made their study his life’s work.) Crossing species such as R. setigeraR. wichurana and R. rugosa with Old Garden roses, Dr. Van Fleet’s goal was to create “dooryard roses” (roses with healthy foliage, abundant flowers and colorful hips) for the rugged and varied needs of American gardens. One of his more famous roses is ‘American Pillar’ (1902) which is descended from R. wichurana and R. setigera and seems to be finding a resurgence in popularity. As you probably already know, the insanely popular rose ‘New Dawn’ is a sport ‘Dr. Van Fleet’. They look pretty much identical to me however ‘Dr. Van Fleet’ does not re-bloom as ‘New Dawn’ does. I no longer grow ‘New Dawn’ because ours had a severe problem with powdery mildew last year and I ended up shovel pruning it. Although I’ve seen some blackspot on the leaves our our Van Fleet roses, no other problems yet (knocks on wood.) I’m so looking forward to seeing my grandmother’s rose bloom this June and you’d better believe I’ll be taking photos to share with all of you here. And now it’s your turn to share your story: do you have a family rose legacy living in your garden?

26 thoughts on “My Grandmother’s Rose

  1. No legacy in my garden, but a peace rose will always make me think of my grandmother. It was her favorite rose. She had a small rose garden next to her house. I don’t know what other varieties were in it, or even any details about the peace rose, but I can picture my grandmother as she walked among her flowers and know she felt very strongly about them and they brought her great joy. Your story is wonderful and you were so lucky to be able to take cuttings! Thank you for sharing!

  2. This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. Thank you Laurie for putting all this down in a place everyone can read. My rose is out there in the winter snow, and next spring when it blooms it will be a day of celebration. Thanks for collecting and sharing this history in words and flowers. I know she would be so proud of you, and who knows, maybe she is your guiding angel in both!

    1. Thank you Susan! I’m honored. I just love your Facebook page–I could stare at those photos for hours. (I’m sorry I don’t have a FB account otherwise I would join the conversation!) Just gorgeous…

  3. The lovely and inspiring story of your grandmother and her rose garden is so wodnerful and brings joy to my heart on this snowy day. I love your photography and and the way you cherish your roses. It is so evident how much you love them byt he way you arrange them, and write about them, and how they are so important to many in your family…a kind of connection that binds you all. Thank you for sharing this lovely story of your grandmother, and her photos. I am knowing how proud and happy she woudl be to see her flowers on the computer, but also know her grandaughter loved her that much to write this lovely story. These photos are so wonderful I can smell the flowers..Thank you ! Merri

  4. When my grandpa and grandma died 3 or 4? years ago (it doesn’t seem possible that they are dead..) I found out that his favorite color rose is yellow so I am going to try to find a nice yellow rose to add to my collection in his memory. He loved to garden so I am trying to make him proud

    This is such a beautiful story thank you for sharing 🙂

  5. I also have a rose of my nonna in my garden. It’s a little pink rosa muschiata, a bit sticky when in bud and very very profumata, thank you for sharing this sweet story. Mandi from Friuli (Italy) Maddalena

  6. What a heartwarming story, and lovely legacy for you! I too, have a Dr. Van Fleet Rose. Many years ago, my Mother grew two bushes from cuttings off my Grandmother’s plant. I always remember my Mother arranging the Van Fleet roses each year for the girls to carry at our local school graduation (I particularly remember helping her trim off the thorns, lol). My Mother passed in 2007 at age 88, I treasure our Van Fleet Roses more than ever now. Thank you all for sharing your rose stories and bringing back warm memories for me!

    1. Hello Linda, welcome!
      I so enjoyed that story about your mother and her Van Fleet roses. What a wonderful memory to have! It’s for reasons like this that make me fall in love with roses all over again. Thank you so much for visiting and sharing this special family story with all of us! ♥

  7. Thank you so much for sharing about your grandparents and the rose they loved so much that it is still in your family gardens. It is a beautiful story. You also helped me solve a rose mystery of my own. At my childhood home there was an “American Pillar” growing on the back fence that, as I got older, I came to admire. My mom gave me a cutting to plant next to a new arbor I had built and it grew happily.
    One spring I noticed there was a new rose growing on my mom’s “American Pillar” that had a much bigger, light pink blossom. Mom told me that it had been the original rose when it was planted in the 1950s but that because of over-pruning she thought it had all been cut back and the root stock of “American Pillar” had become the dominant rose. She gave me a spindly little start before she died that I planted next to the “American Pillar” and the two roses are now intertwined with each other.
    Only recently, with the help of your story, was I able to identify it as either “New Dawn” or “Dr. Van Fleet”. It only blooms once but I understand that is not uncommon for “New Dawn”. I think it is fitting the two roses grow together, given their lineage and garden history, and they always remind me of my mom. They are in bloom right now and are beautiful together. Thanks again for your story.

    1. Hello Tim, thank you for being here and sharing your beautiful story! I love how roses preserve and elicit such fond memories and yours is the perfect example of that. Lovely! 🙂

  8. I find that the rose bush in our yard has blooms for the fist time in 3 years. Family legend has it that the VanFleet rose was taken from a boutiner (?) given to my grand father in 1945 upon his retirement from Westinghouse. Lovely flowers!

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