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How Roses Were Brought to Arizona and the Famous Tombstone Rosebush

Updated on February 23, 2014
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I've lived in Arizona for 65 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, collectibles, and travel.

World's largest Rosebush

This photo was taken in the 1930s.  Today the Rosebush is over 8,000 ft wide and was certified by Ripleys as the World's Largest.
This photo was taken in the 1930s. Today the Rosebush is over 8,000 ft wide and was certified by Ripleys as the World's Largest. | Source

Roses in Arizona and Throughout History

Many people agree that roses are the world's most beloved flower. Most people have seen tiny miniature roses the size of a thumbnail and have seen roses as large as saucers. Roses have been grown for centuries in Asia, Europe, Middle East, Northwest Africa and North America. The long stemmed red rose has become the official flower associated with romantic love, yellow roses as tokens of friendship and pink or white roses as symbols of purity.

There are approximately 35,800 different varieties of roses according to the American Rose Society. When I asked several of my friends where the world's largest rose bush is located, and even when I gave them the hint that it is located in a state that has become one of the largest producers of roses in the United States, only one friend correctly guessed Arizona.

Before exploring Arizona's historical and current connections to roses, it's fun to look at the history and the folklore of roses. As long ago as 1200 BC, Homer's epic poem the Iliad describes Achilles shield as having been decorated with roses after his victory over Hector. During the same period there are references to rose oil which was used for medicinal purposes and to embalm bodies. Nero, the Emperor of Rome, was said to have had such a passion for roses that he insisted that his guests recline on pillows filled with rose petals, and the banquet rooms be filled with hundreds of rose blooms. The Romans also used rose petals to form chains and garlands that were hung for ceremonial occasions. It remains unknown if the Romans brought roses such as the Red Damask to Europe or if the returning Crusaders brought the roses back. In 400 AD the Catholic church adopted the white rose as the emblem of the Virgin Mary. The Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, was said to have commissioned gardeners to breed new roses for her garden near Paris which eventually contained over 250 varieties. The Chinese have grown roses for centuries and as the British Empire continued to trade for tea, the tiny roses called tea roses became the rage throughout Europe.

Roses have been cultivated into various classifications such as climbers, ramblers, miniatures, cluster flowered, large flowered and dwarf flowered. Roses are prized for their aromatic properties, rose oil, rose water, edible petals and for decorative uses. Sadly, I've noticed that many commercially grown roses have lost their pungent smell.

There are a number of stories about how the first roses were brought to the Arizona Territory. Certainly Arizona's most famous rose bush is a white Lady Banksia rambler variety that was planted in Tombstone in 1885. The bush was planted by Mary, who came to Arizona from Scotland, with her husband Henry who had been hired as a mining engineer. Mary's family sent the homesick young bride a box of seeds and root cuttings. To every one's surprise, the rose continued to thrive and soon it grew large enough to require support posts. It is believed that the rose's tap root had found a water source in one of the underground mines beneath Tombstone that had filled with water. In the 1930s, Robert Ripley visited Tombstone to certify that the rose bush was indeed the world's largest and the Tombstone Rose is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records. As reported on March 26, 2011 in the Arizona Republic, the Tombstone Rose was measured to be almost 9,000 sq. feet and must be supported by beams to support the weight. The tiny white roses, about the size of a quarter number in the millions during the blooming season. The rose bush continues to bloom each year in late March or early April and the town of Tombstone has a rose festival. The rose festival begins with crowing a rose queen and her court and a parade. The famous Tombstone rose continues to attract visitors from all over the world.

Arizona's most famous rose garden is located in Prescott at the Sharlot Hall Museum. Prescott was Arizona's first Territorial Capitol. and Sharlot Hall was Arizona's first historian. The McCormick rose, a French Boursaid pink flower variety, is believed to have been one of the first rose bushes planted in Arizona. Margaret Hunt McCormick, the wife of Arizona's second Territorial governor, had the rose root shipped from her former home in New Jersey by steamship up the Colorado River and then carried on a stagecoach to Prescott. She planted the rose next to their front door. While the rose survived poor Margaret died in childbirth in 1867. In 1948, members of the Sharlot Hall Historical Society and members of the Prescott Garden Club implemented a Memorial Rose Garden as a tribute to Sharlot Hall and to the other pioneer women who came to Arizona. The tradition of honoring pioneer women who were born before 1900 and who had lived in Arizona before statehood in 1912 into the Sharlot Hall Museum Memorial Rose Garden has continued.

Today various types of roses can be found growing in most parts of Arizona. Commercial rose growers continue to expand their businesses in the metro Phoenix area, aptly nicknamed "The Valley of the Sun." A variety of the grandiflora roses named Arizona Roses were introduced in 1975 and the colors are a coppery orange and yellow. They measure from 2 to 4 inches across.

There are many good publications on roses. One that I have enjoyed is The Complete Rose Bookby Peter McHoy.


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    • visitAZ profile image

      visitAZ 5 years ago from Arizona

      A friend told me about the giant rose bush in Tombstone and when I went online for more information, I found this wonderful hub and picture. Thanks for sharing.

    • d.william profile image

      d.william 6 years ago from Somewhere in the south

      What a wonderful hub about roses. And as you pointed out, most of the commercial roses are odorless. What a sad loss. I bought two bushes and put them in my backyard several years ago, thinking i would have the wonderful aroma of roses to enjoy. The rose bushes flourished, and are beautiful to look at, but alas, i still miss the smell of roses.