See UC Davis rose farm in bloom
If the rose is the queen of flowers, surely the Olympia Rose Society, founded in 1954, must be the queen of garden clubs. In a recent talk at the Schmidt Mansion, Rose Society president Gary Ritchie reminded the audience that roses were grown in ancient Rome and even more ancient China, and that they are the most enduring and universal symbol of love.
He recounted the history of the lovely rose garden at the Mansion, which the Rose Society created on the occasion of the state centennial in 1989. With just a hint of a smile, he described it as “the best between Washington Park in Portland and the one in Point Defiance Park in Tacoma – a truly county-class garden.”
But sad to say, the beauty and history of roses is proving insufficient to keep the Rose Society growing. Its membership has declined from a high of 180 in about 1980 to 23 today. And it is not alone among garden clubs. The Rhododendron Society’s membership also is down, as are many of the clubs that are part of the Washington Federation of Garden Clubs. Some are in danger of slowly aging out of existence.
In previous centuries, a variety of both flower-specific and more generalized garden clubs provided venues for promoting the gentle pleasures of gardening, for building lifelong friendships, happily occupied retirements, and close relationships with the natural world. Back in the day of stay-at-home moms, white glove garden club parties also offered essential respite from washing diapers and wiping little noses.
Garden clubs also deserve appreciation for the public benefits they bestowed. For instance, the Rhododendron Society contributed plantings in Tumwater Falls Park, at the county fairgrounds, and in the Japanese Garden on Plum Street in Olympia. The multi-species Garden Clubs have beautified countless roadside and community parks with colorful plantings.
Starting shortly after World War II, they also installed Blue Star Markers for veterans with brass plaques and flowers. Even now, in spite of sharply declining membership, a local Garden Club sponsors an annual flower show at the county fair that engages 60-70 volunteers. According to state membership chair Suzann Stahl, it was voted the best feature of the fair last year.
While we might regret the slow fading of these longstanding traditions, all is not lost. The culture of gardening organizations has simply shifted more towards the native, the organic and the edible. The plant-focused organizations that are growing rather than declining have missions that include habitat preservation, protection of clean water, and production of healthy food for people who need it.
The mission of the Native Plant Society, for instance, is to “promote the appreciation and conservation of Washington’s native plants and their habitats through study, education and advocacy.”
Similarly, the Native Plant Salvage Foundation is devoted to the “use, preservation, knowledge and appreciation of native plants in the landscape through action and education.” It rounds up volunteers to dig up native plants in areas that are about to be developed, and keeps them in its nursery for later use in both private and public plantings. Its annual spring plant sale is an ever-more popular event for home gardeners who are looking to furnish their yards with plants that need less water and no fertilizer or fuss.
The workhorse of the contemporary gardening world is the Master Gardener Foundation of Thurston County, affiliated with the Washington State University Extension Service. In addition to offering classes, workshops and environment-friendly advice, it maintains the garden club tradition of creating public gardens – one at the Olympia Farmers’ Market, one at Yauger Park, and a third in in northeast Olympia. And while it does not host garden tea parties, it does host an annual garden tour, coming up on July 13.
The garden organization we admire the most, however, is the Olympia Kiwanis Food Bank garden, which provides more than 25,000 pounds of produce per year. Started in 1990, its all-volunteer workforce provides organically grown vegetables to thousands of people in need. This sustained spirit of generosity is truly a marvel, and a cultural phenomenon we can all celebrate.
Still, we find nostalgia for the older garden clubs irresistible. We especially hope that the Rose Society will find a way to attract younger, more diverse members, because we are smitten by the romance of the genus, its history, and its role in art and literature. Perhaps the Rose Society could focus a little more on growing roses that thrive without chemical assistance, such as the native Nootka rose, or the roses with the biggest rose hips for making tea rich in vitamin C. Then we could at least preserve the tradition of garden club tea parties. For that, we might even go looking for a pair of white gloves.