Love is a Rose
Cooper-Molera: A Bygone Garden
Thursday, April 15, 2004
Listed together they sound like some kind of Old World code, and in a way, they are: Mme. de Tartas, Glendora, Ispahan, Marquise Bocella & La Reine, Rosa Roxburghii, Jeanne d’Arc, Souvenir d’un Ami, Gold of Ophir, Mme. Plantier.
No, it’s not a list of invitees to a Paris society lunch, but a few of the 45 styles of “old” roses growing in the gardens of the Cooper-Molera Adobe in downtown Monterey.
Old roses, also known as heritage roses, stand apart from the common, modern hybrids for their fragrance, resilience and wide spectrum of styles. And as a place discovered by the Old World—that is, by Spanish explorers in 1542—Monterey has had a long love affair with the roses of yesterday.
Located at the corner of Polk and Munras, the Copper-Molera Adobe is actually a 2.2-acre compound smack dab in the middle of town. Complete with barns, an orchard, two sheep, a transplanted outhouse and black Mallorca chickens that proudly strut through the extensive garden, it was the home of a New England sea captain named John Rogers Cooper.
Appropriately enough, the Cooper story is a love story. Shortly after sailing his ship the Rover into the Mexican-held port of Monterey in 1823, Cooper decided to stay. He was one of the town’s first Anglo residents and soon fell in love with a young lady named Encarnacion Vallejo. Cooper married her and built the still-standing compound for her and the kids beside what is now the Safeway parking lot.
Today, the Cooper-Molera Adobe is a state park under lease from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the early 1980s, a gardener from Pacific Grove named Frances Grate began working there as a part-time tour guide, and if anyone has kept the local love affair with old roses alive it’s her.
A former teacher, Grate was there on a recent morning, with a bucket in hand scooping up 145-year-old wood chips from a giant cypress tree that had been cut down in early March. Planted as a seedling in 1860, the cypress grew to be 80 feet tall and 25 feet around. But rot ate into its core and it had to be felled.
“Ah, it was sad,” says Grate. “Very sad.”
When she first started working at the adobe, the garden only had a few original remnants from the old times, like the 80-foot cypress and plum and apricot trees planted by Cooper’s grandson, Andrew Molera.
Grate had an idea to re-create the garden as it might have been when the Coopers lived there. She asked her supervisors, who told her to “go right ahead,” she says.
After doing the research, she gathered the plant types that would have filled the garden in 1865. Besides an abundance of roses, the garden now boasts lavender, sage, hollyhock, rosemary, jasmine, heliotrope, poppies, salvia, wisteria, camellia, two plum trees, two almond trees, fig, apricot, peach and apple trees.
“If the Coopers came back and saw this they’d say, ‘Why aren’t you growing a poinsettia?’ and I’d say, ‘I tried three times but it wasn’t happy here’,” she says.
One of the strangest plants in the garden is the passion vine. It was named by missionaries who found it in the jungles of Brazil and believed it represented the Passion of Christ; its parts could symbolize the apostles, the Holy Trinity, the crown of thorns and the wounds inflicted during the crucifixion. It’s brightly colored and just plain weird.
“This is not the weirdest one,” Grate says. “If you ever get to my house, I have one on my back fence that’s even weirder.”
The Mediterranean weather in Monterey makes for optimal growing conditions and Grate takes full advantage.
“We have a benign climate,” she says. “We can have something of interest in the garden all year round. Here we are, they have snow in Boston and we’re standing in a garden not freezing our tootsies off and we have bloom.”
Probably the most famous plant in the Cooper-Molera Adobe garden is a large and spreading clone of the legendary Sherman Rose, planted by Grate in 1979.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a lieutenant in the US Army stationed at the Presidio of Monterey in 1847. He fell in love with a young daughter of the Bonifacio family.
“The legend is that they planted a yellow rose bush together,” says Grate. “And he told her he’d return when it bloomed.”
He did not.
Grate did serious research about the Sherman Rose for a chapter she wrote in a local history book about the Monterey mesa. She found that the legend is just a legend.
“It’s still a beautiful story and who are we to say? Maybe the essence is OK even if the facts are all wrong,” she says. “If there was a Sherman Rose plant at the time, we have it growing in the back of Cooper.”
Like many gardeners, Grate relates the garden—which she calls “contrived nature”—to her life philosophy, that both are rife with lessons in humility and both demand flexibility—especially when cultivating 45 authentic rose bushes.
“I like to stick to the truth because I think the truth is more fascinating and stranger than fiction,” she says. “Gardening is life. You reap what you plant.”