The rose that won the West
History is in bloom across the Roaring Fork Valley.
If you spot a Harison’s Yellow rose rambling along a fence line, take a moment to stop and admire it. The lemon yellow bloom is brief and spectacular, with more petals and a more delicate aroma than the shrubs’ presumed ancestor, Rosa foetida.
“It only blooms once a year, but when it does it’s something else,” said Matt Douglas, who owns High County Roses in Arvada, one of the few nurseries in the state to stock the Harison’s Yellow on its own roots. Despite its ability to thrive on neglect on an old homestead, the rose is notoriously difficult to establish. Even the common nursery tactic of grafting a rose to the root of a hardier variety yields limited success.
“It doesn’t lend itself towards mass production,” said Douglas.
Nevertheless, the rose somehow made its way west from the Manhattan garden of George Folliott Harison, where it originated as a chance hybrid of uncertain parentage in 1824. Despite a meager existence and little prospect for better, scores of pioneers took the time to care for a sucker or a cutting as they crossed the continent in covered wagons. According to one legend, they preserved the plants by rooting them in potatoes.
Also known as the Pioneer Rose, Oregon Trail Rose, Hogg’s Yellow, Harison’s Gold and the Yellow Rose of Texas, the rose is found in particular profusion along the Oregon Trail where it forms thickets in abandoned logging camps. In some places it serves a practical purpose as a barrier hedge, but in many cases was clearly ornamental.
Left to its own devices, Harison’s Yellow rose bushes can grow 6 feet tall and spread in all directions. The rose produces suckers on its own roots and possesses the same sort of genetic immortality as an aspen grove. One specimen outside of the Bowles House in Westminster was likely planted in 1875, and is believed to be the oldest in the Colorado.
Once rooted, the rose has proven drought- and cold-tolerant and resistant to pests both large and small. Even when its abundant thorns have inspired someone to eradicate a thicket of Harison’s Yellow, they have found it difficult.
Stan Griep, an accomplished rosarian who contributed much of the information for this article, recalled his father’s attempt. Griep helped cut back the canes and burn the area, but it came back the next year. Even herbicide succeeded only in pushing the bush back to the fence line, and it was allowed to remain.
Harison’s Yellow’s tenacity has inspired comparisons to the rugged will of the frontier itself. Even its chance origin in New York, the gateway through which many immigrants enter, lends itself to symbolism.
“It’s such a uniquely American plant,” Douglas observed. “It’s survived through the ages in untended fields. There’s a reason they’re everywhere from here to New York.”
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