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Fading Rose Garden pruned by those who love it

on September 14, 2009

Discolored rose petals piled in a corner.  Dead rose heads were bending off their stems.“Every time I come here, I get itchy fingers because I want to prune the roses,” said Carol Braves, grasping a pair of clippers as she stared at a limp-looking pink rose bush that was almost as tall as she was.  “I feel like a kid in a candy store right now.”

For more than 75 years, Oakland’s famous Morcom Rose Garden has been a beautiful retreat for the community.  Weddings, ceremonies and events have been held in the garden.  When Braves was 12 years old, she said (she’s now 56), her parents brought her to a winter pruning event. She salvaged a rose stock and planted it in her parents’ backyard. “It’s still there,” she said.

But state and city budget cuts have taken a toll on the flowers and the grounds. The rose garden is one of more than a dozen city parks and gardens that city employees have to maintain. The staff was cut to only two full-time employees, but now does not have a dedicated staff at all.

So this weekend, Braves joined other volunteers at the Saturday cleanup organized by the Friends of the Rose Garden.  An overcast, raining, chilly and muddy day did not discourage  more than 50 volunteers from coming to the Rose Garden. “I love this park, but I have a bad back,” said a petite older woman who had walked across Jean Street to the sign-up sheet table. “But I want to help as much as I can.”

Off Jean Street stretched more than seven acres of landscaping displaying a diverse variety of rose bushes, varying from red and magenta to oranges, yellows, and whites. There were hybrid tea roses and China roses.  People have traveled from all around the Bay Area and farther to stop and smell the Garden’s roses — literally.

According to history records kept at the Oakland Public Library, the Rose Garden began when in 1911, the city’s Oakland’s Board of Public Works and an individual named Arthur L. Banks purchased the land for $32,000.  A landscape architect eventually designed the acres to suggest famous gardens in Italy.  The park officially opened in May 1933, when then-mayor Fred N. Morcom planted the first of what were to be 7,500 roses.  The garden was later named after the Morcom, after he passed away. Although the garden underwent substantial renovation in the winter of 1947-1948, the basic plan remained the same.

From the Jean Street entrance there is a bronze plague with a poem by the English poet John Masefield.  It reads:

Roses are beauty, but I never see

Those blood drops from the burning heart of June

Blowing like thought upon the living tree

Without a pity that they die so soon.

Tora Rocha, the City of Oakland’s gardener crew leader, founded Friends of the Rose Garden, an organization dedicated in preserving and maintaining the garden. Her organization of volunteers helps maintain the garden’s elegance, which Rocha said is an important part of the neighborhood.  “We need to teach the city the difference between parks and gardens,” Rocha said. “Gardens need passion, and passion is contagious.”

With a yellow and orange reflector vest on, Rocha, who has worked for Oakland for 28 years, greeted the volunteers and directed them to the tented table of clippers, gloves and garden tools. “It’s magic,” she said. “I want to make sure it stays that way.”

She said she has always had a passion for gardening, and began to get teary-eyed when talking about the cleanup event. “I’m just a gardener,” she said. “This is amazing.”

A year and half ago a monthly volunteer event began, but this Saturday was the First Annual “Dedicated Deadheaders” event to clean up the garden, remove weeds and prune the roses, so that new ones can bloom.

Another volunteer, Jenny Jones, who is originally from Oakland but now lives in San Leandro, said she has been volunteering with the Friends of the Rose Garden since spring. “I love roses and I don’t want to see them go,” she said.

Jones said she also enjoys the tranquility of the garden. “It’s peaceful, gorgeous, quiet and in the middle of the city,” she said.

Towards the back of the garden, volunteers flocked around the bushes, cutting off the dead heads of the roses, whose petals were wilting. Other volunteers were on their knees, undeterred by the raindrops, pulling weeds.

As volunteers worked, a man gave a crash course on pruning roses. Wearing a tie-dye shirt with the words “Dedicated Deadheaders” and a yellow and orange reflector vest, he held up a rose stem and showed the proper way to cut the stem while ten volunteers listened. “See, if I cut it here it’s a little too close,” he said.

Many of the volunteers sported the tie-dye shirts, which were sold at the entrance tables near the volunteer sign-up sheets. Some of the colorful t-shirts were folded on tables and some hung from a string over the table.

Elida Scola, owner of Galleria Scola, a picture and framing store on Oakland Avenue, said she was very excited to come support the Rose Garden, especially since her business is around the corner. “The President asks for people to give back to the community,” she said.   “And this is the perfect example of that.”


  1. Jenna on September 15, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Beautiful writing, I could really feel the event. I too have an emotional attachment to the rose garden, thanks for the story

  2. Gordon on September 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Wow! The pictures tell a great story, thank you paricks!

  3. Margaret on September 15, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Real nice story, I too love this rose garden

  4. Heather Forcella on September 15, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    This is such a great article! This writer is very talented, I can’t wait to hear more from her.

  5. Paige Ricks on September 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you for all the positive feeback. I truly enjoyed my time at the garden — especially hearing people’s stories about their memories in the garden.

    If you know of any other issues that are affecting the Oakland North community please contact me. Thank you again.

  6. Manette Belliveau on September 17, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Visitors from all over the world like to visit gardens in cities they visit. I too am a passionate gardener and truly believe that this is an Oakland treasure that needs to be maintained and nurtured for years to come. A garden is very different than a public park and provides a special sense of peace and tranquility that can be hard to find in a otherwise busy urban environment. Let me know how we can help at the OCVB. Maybe we can host a photo contest of the roses and garden next spring? The rose gardens in Portland draw thousands of visitors each year. Our budget is tight, but we are open to ideas.

  7. Anca Mosoiu on September 17, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you very much for the lovely story and photos. It was great to meet you at the garden and chat with you.

    If you are interested in helping out the Morcom Rose Garden, you can send an email to, or go to the website ( and leave a note or comment.

  8. Ray on September 19, 2009 at 8:13 am

    I’ve never really paid much attention to the gardens and parks in the area bt this story is definitly going to make me take a closer look! Great article!

  9. Bruce Joffe on October 9, 2009 at 6:59 am

    Thanks for publicizing this garden gem in Oakland. Thanks, especially, for mentioning the extraordinary work of Tora Rocha, now responsible (perhaps burdened) with caring for 10 parks instead of focusing on Morcom … for reduced pay. Two other very talented and dedicated Morcom gardeners, Mary and Christian, were cut from City employ in a short-sighted effort to save money. Oakland’s gardens and parks are worse for wear as a result. Yet, the City Council’s administrative staffs are as bloated as ever.

  10. […] to help people envision and accept the eventuality of their own deaths. Story by Becky Palmstrom. Fading Rose Garden pruned by those who love it Discolored rose petals piled in a corner. Dead rose heads were bending off their stems.“Every […]

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