See why Portland’s called the ‘City of Roses’ at Oregon Historical Society exhibit (photos, video)

Roses were once so abundant in Portland that almost a half million of the home-grown flowers filled an auditorium at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. A decade later, the still young, but booming city had 200 miles of rose hedges lining curbs, long before shade-producing trees, wider streets and the desire for easier access to cars made them fade away.

An exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society through June 17 colorfully explains how Portland became known as the "City of Roses." Part of the story includes city boosters and volunteers giving away thousands of rose cuttings named after mysterious French dressmaker Madame Caroline Testout.

Curator Laura King created the exhibit, "Madame Caroline Testout: The Rose That Made Portland Famous," based on her years of research and personal dedication to keeping Portland’s rose culture thriving.

Today, you can still find Madame Caroline Testout (pronounced "tes-too") roses in historic cemeteries, parks and private yards. But when 1.6 million paying visitors rode in horse-drawn carriages along rose-lined streets to the 1905 Exposition, "rose euphoria" was in full bloom, according to King.

The Portland Rose Festival followed two years later, with roses, plucked from public plants and home gardens, covering parade floats and cars, and marching postal workers filling their leather mailbags with the city’s signature pink roses.

The Royal Rosarians, those straw-hatted ambassadors of the City of Roses, first came forth in 1912 and the International Rose Test Garden opened in Washington Park in 1917.

Public interest in roses got its initial big push from Georgiana Pittock, a founding member of the Portland Rose Society and wife of the publisher of The Oregonian newspaper.

Georgiana Pittock had an informal rose show in her home garden in 1888, years before she nurtured roses on the extensive grounds of her last estate, the 1914 Pittock Mansion, a French Renaissance Revival-style chateau that’s part of Portland Parks and Recreation and now open to the public.

The first official rose show in the United States was in 1889 at Bishop Scott Academy, the current site of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Northwest Portland.

The collective mission of civic leaders and groups: To beautify the city by asking everyone to plant roses in front of their Victorian-era residences. The plan: To be branded as "Rose City" at the 1905 exposition.

The plan worked.

Rose fancier Frederick V. Holman suggested a specific rose to the exposition committee: The Madame Caroline Testout, a hardy, hybrid tea rose with large pink petals with clear silvery pink edges.

Fame French hybridizer Joseph Pernet-Ducher sold his pretty rose to a dressmaker who named it after herself.

The Madame Caroline Testout rose was introduced to the U.S. in 1892 and the City of Portland imported thousands of the plants. Portland Rose Society members then went knocking door to door in 1902 to hand them out, says King.

More-fragrant La France roses, a cross between a perpetual hybrid and tea roses, and American Beauty roses were also planted along streets leading to the exposition’s site in Northwest Portland. But the Madame Caroline Testout rose was the most popular, with more than 7,000 growing at the fairgrounds alone.

The city was "a blooming wonderland," says King.

Over time, the Women’s Advertising Club of Portland’s Mystic Order of the Rose group distributed hundreds of thousands of rose cuttings provided by the Portland Park Bureau through its ongoing "Great Rose Clipping Giveaway."

In 1914, the Portland Rose Festival Association sponsored a promotional railroad tour and Madame Caroline Testout roses were ceremoniously planted at 10 stops. The festival’s rose queen and her court were showered with hundreds of the flowers in Salem, says King. Across the country that same year, an Oregon-grown Madame Caroline Testout rosebush was planted at the White House while President Woodrow Wilson watched.

Eventually, other businesses, organizations and clubs adopted the Rose City nickname or used an image of a rose in their logos. The Union Pacific Railroad’s luxury Portland Rose train crossed all the way to Chicago, complete with a rose motif decor and custom Madame Caroline Testout china pattern.

People hopped on Rose City sightseeing tours, garden clubs sprang up and photographers set up cameras to take portraits against rose-themed backdrops for postcards. "Everyone was participating," says King.

Rose emblems still appear on Portland police cars to water meter covers, she adds. And yet, it wasn’t until 2003 that the "City of Roses" was officially recognized as Portland’s nickname.

With research help from Mike Dalton, King wrote placards for the exhibit in the Oregon Historical Society’s Hayes Gallery that detail the city’s rose adoration during its most extravagant era. A lace gown worn to the 1905 exposition, rose-growing books from the period and many photographs also help tell the story.

Rose mania was so strong that King recounts a "rose rustling" in 1933, where a man was arrested after digging up dozens of valuable Madame Caroline Testout rosebushes from the Oregon Institution for the Blind. He confessed he wanted to put them in his front lawn for "his part in the beautification campaign," according to an Oregonian story. Instead of an award, he was given jail time and charged with destroying public property.

Historians estimate that almost one quarter of city streets were once outfitted with rose hedges before the fervor died down in the mid-1920s.

King says you can help keep Portland the City of Roses by volunteering at public gardens and attending Rose Festival events. She found that the East Rose Garden in Portland’s Ladd’s Addition has the largest collection of Madame Caroline Testout roses of any Portland park.

To really take home the message, plant a bush for yourself.

After all, who doesn’t like roses?

Recently, the Oregon Historical Society’s executive director Kerry Tymchuk was asked by friends to have their wedding inside the downtown building. Tymchuk considered every space before selecting the most romantic spot: Inside the gallery dedicated to the rose exhibit.

The couple said their vows, with Tymchuk officiating, in front of a giant historic photo of roses with a backdrop of Mount Hood.

King smiles hearing this story. Standing in front of a vintage photo of a baby next to a bouquet, she says, "Roses follow us from the cradle to the grave."

"Madame Caroline Testout: The Rose That Made Portland Famous" continues through June 17 at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W .Park Ave., Portland. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday: noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $10, free to Multnomah Count residents. For more info: (503) 222-1741,

— Janet Eastman

Where to see Madame Caroline Testout Roses today

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