PDX Postcard: Everything’s Coming Up Roses
by Julie Snyder
In Portland, taking time to smell the roses isn’t just a figure of speech—it’s a favorite pastime for both visitors and locals. There’s petal power aplenty behind the long-held monikers of “City of Roses” and “Rose City.”
Portland evidently owes it rosy reputation to an 1837 wedding when a rose bush, the first to appear in the Pacific Northwest, was gifted to the betrothed couple. Clippings from the bush thrived in the region’s temperate climate in the decades that followed. In 1889, roses became the rage as Georgina Pittock, wife of Oregonian publisher, Henry Pittock, established the Portland Rose Society with fellow flower fans.
When Portland hosted the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, the city heralded its first world’s fair by planting voluptuous Madame Caroline Testout hybrid tea roses along 200 miles of city streets. Cultivating the success of the exposition, Portland organized its first annual Rose Festival two years later.
During World War I, many of Europe’s hybrid roses were safely harbored in Portland’s Washington Park as bombs destroyed their homeland. Today the world-famous International Rose Test Garden (one of 11 testing grounds for new rose varieties in the U.S.) attracts hundreds of thousands of global visitors each year. With some 650 varieties and 10,000 bushes in bloom from April to October, surveying and sniffing out favorites is a daunting task.
The annual Portland Rose Festival has thrived for more than a century. The celebration spans several months with an eclectic line-up of rose-themed events including parades, art shows, fireworks, rose exhibitions, boat races, a waterfront fair and Fleet Week. (Yes, even sailors are sweet on roses…).
The Grand Floral Parade, the cherished centerpiece of the festival, is held in early June when rose blooms are typically at their peak. The event packs the streets of its four-mile downtown route with enthusiastic fans of its spectacular floral floats, Rose Queen and her Court, marching bands, dance teams, equestrian units, and fanciful citizen brigades.
A week earlier, the Starlight Parade features plenty of fun and funk in a wild assortment of flood-lit floats, glow-in-the-dark umbrellas, marching music and often an unorthodox Grand Marshal. (In 2015 it was an enormous roll of carpet from PDX Airport—outfitted with eyes and a seatbelt—in response to news that the much-beloved design was being replaced.)
Other Rose Festival attractions that draw a crowd: the Spring Rose Show, largest and longest-running rose event in the nation, boasting more than 4,000 blooms; CityFair, a family-friendly funfest on the waterfront; a citywide Treasure Hunt for a Rose Festival medallion, with daily clues in the media; the Starlight Run, with costumed participants; community clowns—ordinary Portlanders who dress up to entertain along parade routes; Dragon Boat races with over 60 international teams; and the Milk Carton Boat Race where handmade, human-powered boats floating on milk cartons and jugs (recycled only, please) compete for the milk can trophy.
If you haven’t had your fill of roses post-festival, here are a few more spots to check out: Peninsula Park Rose Garden, Portland’s first public rose garden and setting for the first Rose Festival; Pittock Mansion, a French Renaissance-style chateau built in the early 1890s by Henry and Georgina Pittock (she of Portland Rose Society fame), and home to 100 different species; and Ladd’s Addition, where four rose gardens accessorize the diagonal street pattern in this historic district.
Whether you visit Portland during Rose Festival season or another time when flowers are in bloom, no need to bring your rose-colored glasses—we have a profusion of the real thing.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.