History of Portland’s International Rose Test Garden

People stroll through rose gardens in Portland.
The garden is one of five US testing sites for David Austin roses. | Photo via City of Portland

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet but Portland wouldn’t be the City of Roses without them — and the crown jewel of our fair city is the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park. Its history is deep-rooted, with an origin story that’s intertwined with Portland’s “Rose City” moniker. 

A black and white image of a hillside with trees.
The site of the future rose garden, circa 1918. | Photo via Portland Parks and Recreation

🌰 A seed planted

In the late 1880s, Oregon Trail pioneer + avid gardener Georgiana Burton Pittock (yes, of the Pittock Mansion) founded the Portland Rose Society as a benefit for her church. She held a competition in her yard, inviting her friends and neighbors to show off their best home-grown roses

On the other side of the world in 1890, a new hybrid tea rose called the “Madame Caroline Testout” made its debut at a fashion show in France. The popularity of the rose, with its silky pink petals, spread to America + nearly 500,000 Caroline Testout roses were planted along Portland sidewalks. By 1905, the city boasted 200 miles of rose-bordered streets, earning it the “City of Roses” nickname.    

Rose bushes grow in rows at the International Rose Test Garden in Portland, Oregon.
Experts from around the world visit every June to select “Portland’s Best Rose.” | Photo by mattlehrer

🌱 An idea sprouts  

A decade later, rose hobbyist and Oregon Journal editor Jesse A. Currey lobbied city leaders to create a garden where hybrid roses from Europe could be protected from bombings during World War I. The Park Bureau green-lighted the idea in 1917 + rose hybridizers in England started sending over their precious plants the following year. 

City landscape architect Florence Holmes Gerke designed the layout of what became the International Rose Test Garden, along with an on-site amphitheater. The garden was dedicated in June of 1924 — and Florence was named the garden’s first rose curator

An aerial view of the International Rose Test Garden.
Visitors are treated to views of Mount Hood + downtown Portland. | Photo by pdx.rollingthunder

🌹 Full bloom

Today, the 4.5-acre International Rose Test Garden is home to 10,000 rose bushes representing over 610 different varieties. It’s the oldest continuously operating public rose test garden in the US + one of the top free attractions in Oregon. The best time to visit is when the roses are blooming, from late May through October.

Strolling through the rows of roses is a therapeutic experience, especially with several sub-gardens to explore — like the Royal Rosarian Garden where you’ll find the namesake roses of all past prime ministers who have led the local civic group. There’s also the Shakespeare Garden, the adorable Miniature Rose Garden, the Gold Award roses, and the Queen’s Walk. The latter is a brick walkway with bronze plaques featuring the names of Rose Festival queens.