Some gardeners new to northern Arizona may doubt they can grow roses successfully here. Fear not! Two varieties do very well in our climate and are available locally. Each type has a special history in this region. This year, The Arboretum at Flagstaff has both Riles Roses and McCormick Roses for sale. (The Arb is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. until it closes for the season at the end of October.)
The Riles Rose is a bramble type that flourishes here. To see one in the ground, you can visit the garden at Olivia White Hospice (752 N. Switzer Canyon Drive) or the Riles Building on the North Campus of Northern Arizona University (just south of Old Main). It has white blossoms in summer, followed by large, showy red hips which provide fall and winter interest.
Here’s a bit of history about the Riles Rose. Lemuel Littleman, a Dine’ man who headed NAU’s groundskeeping operations for many years in the mid-20th century, planted this heritage rose next to the building, which in 1987, was named after NAU graduate Wilson C. Riles. (The Riles Building on North Campus is now home to the College of Arts and Letters and Comparative Cultural Studies.) The rose has grown large over the decades and was christened “The Riles Rose” by former NAU Greenhouse manager Brad Blake.
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Many readers will recognize “W. C. Riles” as the name of a street in central Flagstaff formally known as, until June 2021, Agassiz Street. Riles was so honored by the City of Flagstaff because of his contribution to Flagstaff as principal of Dunbar School from 1947-1954 and his successful efforts to desegregate all public schools here, even before the federal government required integration. A native of Louisiana, Wilson Riles moved to Flagstaff after high school and, in 1936, was the first Black student to enroll at NAU. He went on to get advanced degrees in education and an honorary law degree from NAU. Moving on from Flagstaff, Riles made his mark in California as State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He’s recognized by NAU as one of its most successful and influential graduates.
The McCormick Rose, which like the Riles Rose, is propagated at the NAU Greenhouse, was similarly named in honor of a young person who settled in Arizona. That person was Margaret McCormick, wife of Territorial Governor Richard McCormick. In 1885 the newlyweds traveled from the East Coast to Prescott via steamship and muleback. Margaret probably carried in her luggage the cutting of the rose that had grown in her New Jersey home. She would not see that home again. Margaret McCormick died in childbirth at age 24. The rose cutting she planted at the Governor’s Mansion (then a log cabin) now bears her name and has hundreds of descendants around the state.
Progeny of this original rose — a deep pink French Boursalt variety — are known today as McCormick Roses, and they have flourished on NAU North Campus since the 1930s. Like the Riles Roses, McCormick Roses need lots of sun and room to grow big. They make a wonderful addition to northern Arizona gardens. And fall is the perfect time to plant one — or two.
When you do get ready to put your rose in the ground, you may wish to refer to Carol Chicci’s April 23 Gardening Etcetera column in the Arizona Daily Sun. It gives detailed instructions about planting. When a freeze approaches, Carol’s September 19, 2020 article offers advice on caring for your rose. And when it’s time to prune your Riles or McCormick Rose, refer to her recent piece on that subject in the August 27, 2022 column. You may find these publications at arizonadailysun.com. Next to the Arizona Daily Sun title at the top of the page, search for “Chicci.”
Ellen Wade moved to Flagstaff from Texas in 2006 and began learning about the natural and human history of northern Arizona. She and her husband Bill took the last Master Naturalist class offered by the Coconino County Extension Office in Flagstaff. They went on to volunteer with the NPS/USFS Interpretive Ranger program. Ellen is a docent and board member at the Arboretum. She’s a fan of the Master Gardener Hotline and the Grow Flagstaff! Seed Library at the Coconino Cooperative Extension Office.
If you have a gardening question, email CoconinoMasterGardener@gmail.com or call the Master Gardener Hotline at 928-773-6115 and leave a message. A Master Gardener will get back to you.
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