Garden of life
A new documentary chronicles the history of the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery's lush heritage roses
For lovers of roses, the ultimate thrill exists in discovering a variety previously thought to be extinct. That’s exactly what happened to Fred Boutin in 1962—a moment that propelled his lifelong obsession with heritage roses and ultimately led to the 1992 opening of the Historic Rose Garden at the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery on Broadway and Riverside Boulevard.
That thrill also intrigued local filmmaker and SN&R freelance photographer Louise Mitchell, who chronicled the garden’s story in a new documentary, Cemetery Rose. The 30-minute film focuses on the modern Historic Rose Garden, a bit of land tucked in the old cemetery, and also explores its transformation from near ruin into a Victorian garden. In it, Mitchell interviews those central to its history, including Boutin, whom she found inspiring.
“Fred is one of those people who will pursue a problem—the problem being identifying a rose—for as long as it takes,” Mitchell said. “I admire his relentless curiosity.”
That curiosity was on display 40 years ago as Boutin, then studying botany at the University of California, Riverside, rode his bike ride to school one day. During his trek, he noticed a rose bush on the side of the road. It didn’t look at all like any of the roses he’d seen in his grandmother’s garden. The future botanist returned to the bush again and again and, eventually, snipped some cuttings so that he could devote time trying to identify it. Eventually, he determined the variety to be La Reine—a kind long considered extinct.
The discovery proved pivotal.
“My worldview expanded beyond [the] Hybrid Tea [rose],” Boutin said. “That really intrigued me—that a rose could be considered to be extinct, and here it was performing wonderfully at this garden in Riverside.”
The find motivated Boutin to seek out more heritage roses. He learned that there are more than a hundred different distinct species and thousands of hybrid varieties.
As Mitchell learned more about the history and science of heritage roses for her film, she was also intrigued.
“I was so surprised that it was that complicated—just the sheer number of varieties of roses,” Mitchell said. “They can look like the ones you see at the florist, [or] they can also look a lot different than what we think of as roses.”
Mitchell first learned of the garden in 2000 after seeing an interview on TV with the local comedian Jack Gallagher who called it one of his favorite places in Sacramento.
“I made a point of visiting,” she said. “My initial impression was that it was charming and a little spooky.”
With its mixture of aging tombstones and 350 different varieties of old, mostly 19th-century roses that, like the La Reine, were collected at abandoned sites, it looks much like the gardenlike Victorian cemeteries of yore.
Some of the garden’s other heritage varieties include the New Orleans Cemetery Rose and the Rusty’s Angels Camp Orange. Such heritage roses exist all over the country—untended yet surviving, thanks to their hearty nature.
Boutin spent considerable time seeking them out, looking through cemeteries, homes and roadsides all over Northern California. Throughout his travels, he found many dating back to the 19th century, varieties originally brought here by pioneers and enterprising businessmen during the gold rush.
Then, in 1991, thanks in part to his reputation as an ambitious pursuer of “lost” heritage roses, a group of Davis-based rosarians invited Boutin to speak to their group. One of them, Jean Travis, invited him to the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery afterward. Once Boutin saw the cemetery, he realized it would be the ideal spot for his growing heritage collection.
“The thing that really struck me was the grid pattern of the cemetery, [which] would make a very easy pattern to keep mapped so we could keep track of what was planted where,” Boutin said.
At the time, the city of Sacramento was in the middle of revitalizing the cemetery. Only five years earlier, the site had been in complete shambles. Bill Harp, a current garden volunteer who moved to Sacramento in 1976, remembers it as not just disorderly but even dangerous.
“It was a wreck. It was full of toppled-down tombstones, condoms lying around and hypodermic needles,” Harp said.
Established in 1849, the Historic City Cemetery is the resting place for many of Sacramento’s original settlers, including the city’s founder John Augustus Sutter Jr.
Despite this historical significance, however, few took responsible for maintaining the cemetery. Technically, the obligation fell to the families of the deceased, but by the 1940s, many families had moved away, died or forgot about their relatives’ plots, leaving the cemetery uncared for and deteriorating with each passing year. Then, in 1986, vandals damaged an estimated 50 to 100 tombstones, prompting then-Councilman David Shore to invite concerned citizens to meet with him. The result was the Old City Cemetery Committee. In addition to hosting events and tours, the committee also spearheaded restoration efforts and, subsequently, developed a plan with the city of Sacramento.
The Adopt a Pioneer Program (the name later changed to Adopt a Plot), encouraged citizens to take over the care for cemetery plots. When Boutin heard about the efforts to revitalize the cemetery, he got an idea.
“I put two and two together and said, ’Why don’t we ask the city if we can adopt 50 plots, and see what happens?’” Boutin said.
City officials agreed, initially allowing them 1 acre to house his collection. Travis and her friends also contributed some of the heritage roses they’d collected, and Boutin added 25 roses they found scattered throughout
the cemetery. Within a few years, the garden expanded to cover 3 acres—roughly 10 percent of the cemetery.
From the start of its revitalization, the committee’s worked to maintain and beautify the cemetery. In time, it has once again become a place where residents regularly visit—many of whom enjoy its serene parklike setting.
Mitchell, who spent countless hours there working on her film, said some of her favorite experiences were the moments spent alone with the thorny flowers.
“I really like the way the roses arch over you,” Mitchell said. “It’s a neat feeling to have them surrounding you, especially if they’re in bloom.”
The chance to learn about their local significance, Mitchell said, was in part, one of her main reasons for taking on the documentary.
“I love the history and the deep roots,” she said. “You see that in the cemetery. It’s on the headstones, and I love that interwoven in with the beauty of the plants and the roses.”