San Benito Lifestyle

Beauty and history: the heritage roses of San Juan Bautista

Unique varieties have been growing in the city cemetery for many generations.

Not much is known about Jesse Bowen Hildreth. He was born in Missouri, lived in San Benito County and died on Jan. 25, 1862 at the age of 21. He appears to have been the son of a rancher, the youngest of 12 children. He is buried in the San Juan Bautista Cemetery.

His claim to immortality is a creamy white tea rose in the cemetery known as the “Jesse Hildreth Rose,” which has as many as 100 petals to a single flower. This unique variety is named for him because it grows next to his grave. Most likely it was planted there when he died.

The cemetery’s maintenance practices almost killed this singular rose. Years of drought had weakened the already old and fragile plant. A newly dug grave nearby cropped off half the root ball. Nobody paid attention to this historic treasure struggling against neglect.

All this changed in 2013 when the San Juan Bautista Historical Society received an email from Jeri Jennings, a national convenor for the Heritage Roses Group and an expert on heritage roses.

Jennings “was pleading with the city to have the cemetery stop weed whacking the roses,” said Wanda Guibert, SJB Historical Society president. “Up to that point, I did not know about the historic roses here.”

Jennings was on her way to San Jose from her home in Camarillo for a rose event when she discovered San Juan Bautista had a pioneer cemetery.

“If you are interested in old roses, you learn quickly that really old cemeteries are a place where many of them have survived,” Jennings recalled. “It was May, and the cemetery’s roses were blooming, and we fell in love.”

San Juan Cemetery, 2013. Photo courtesy of Jeri Jennings.
San Juan Cemetery, 2013. Photo courtesy of Jeri Jennings.

With the permission of the late councilman Tony Boch (who had a seat on the cemetery board), volunteers mobilized and a restoration of the cemetery roses began.

The rose by Hildreth’s grave was among the first to receive attention from volunteers, including Jill Perry, curator of the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden. The rose had been trained to resemble a tree.

“It used to just have that one cane and canopy,” Perry said. “The cemetery worker would always cut off any canes that came up. We got worried that one big cane was not going to live forever—and it didn’t.”

After a century or more of neglect, most of the original cemetery plants were lost forever, but 15 distinct roses remained. Of these, a few, like the Hildreth rose, were previously unknown to experts in roses, known as “rosarians.”

It’s not unusual with tea roses—so named because their scent resembles that of dried tea—to find examples that cannot be identified.

“There were 2,000 tea roses bred in the early 1800s to the early 1900s,” Perry said, “and there are only a few hundred left in the world today. In some cases, there might only be one known plant growing in a garden, but nobody remembers what it is anymore.”

Of the 15 roses in the San Juan Bautista Cemetery, about a third were found to be unique and previously unknown. The Hildreth rose is one. Cuttings from this beautiful flower have been made commercially available, guaranteeing it a life beyond San Juan Bautista.

Another singular rose can be found close to the flagpole near the veterans section of the cemetery.

“I named that one ‘Flagpole’ and we grow that one at the Heritage Rose Garden,” said Perry, noting that a careful comparison of the rose with identified varieties demonstrated its uniqueness. “I noticed that one before on a visit to San Juan Bautista before I was really into roses.” 

The Jose A Africa Rose. Photo courtesy of Jill Perry.
The Jose A Africa Rose. Photo courtesy of Jill Perry.

Other roses now known for the graves they adorn are the “McKee,” a pale Floribunda, and a climbing American Beauty rose called the “Jose A. Africa.”

The rediscovery of the heritage roses in the cemetery led to an interest in other rare roses in town, with 12 other sites hosting unique varieties. For example, the “Zanetta Bourbon” was found at the Zanetta House, and the “San Juan Settler” rose can be found by the Settler’s Cabin at the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.

The type of rose climbing the fence surrounding the old jail at the state park is a “Cécile Brünner,” a variety dating back to 1881.

Other old roses in town include the “Félicité Perpétue” (1827),  the “Lady Mary Fitzwilliam” (1880), the “Fortuniana” (1850), the “Hermosa” (1832), and the “Lutea” (1824).

One significant local rose is the damask, known as the “Rose of Castile,” found on the fence between Casa de Anza and La Casa Rosa on Third Street. The Spanish planted these roses at every Mission site, following the lead of Junipero Serra, but the rose is even older than that.  “The poet Virgil wrote about this rose circa 70 B.C.,” said Jennings.

The Rose of Castile had a particular meaning to the missionaries. It’s traditionally associated with the rose that the Virgin of Guadalupe made available to Juan Diego in her fourth apparition. The original rose brought by the missionaries spread around town through rooted cuttings.

An important local tradition regarding this rose is mentioned in a 1934 article in an issue of the San Juan Mission News (provided by the SJB Historical Society): “It was customary in the days of Mrs. Angelo Zanetta . . . when a friend or neighbor was laid away for a slip of this rose bush to be planted on their grave.”

The article refers to Mariquita “Mary” Zanetta (1853-1942). Her great-granddaughter, Mary Anzar of San Juan Bautista, remembers the tradition.

“My grandmother Anzar used to go plant roses in the cemetery and that was one of her favorites,” she said. “Apparently she learned it from my great-grandmother who lived in Casa de Anza, and that is where the rose was.”

Unfortunately, the rediscovery of these heritage roses around San Juan Bautista did not guarantee their survival. Much of the maintenance fell to Guibert, who visits the cemetery site almost daily.

“During the summer I will bring water and take care of the plants,” she said. “My husband and I will deadhead them and cut off deadwood. I noticed damage on some and I was told it was from the use of [the herbicide] Roundup, so I went to Tony Boch and got them to stop it.”

The damage from Roundup and workers using weed whackers to prune the plants over the years took a toll. Of the 15 roses noted in the inventory seven years ago, four are now dead. 

Recently, San Juan Bautista City Councilman Dan DeVries took an interest in the restoration work.

“Some of the roses here are the hybrid tea roses, which were first developed in 1867,” DeVries said, “but many of the roses here predate that. San Juan was founded in 1797, and many of the roses still here were brought over by the missionaries and early settlers.” DeVries and Guibert created a Facebook group, Heritage Roses of San Juan, to bring attention to these historic treasures.

“For me, it is part of my love of plants and my love of history. Roses combine those two things. Through propagation, this history can live on forever,” DeVries said. “With the Rose of Castile, we are looking at a plant that existed since before the birth of Christ that can still be found blooming on the streets of San Juan. There is something breathtaking about that.”


(Note: All of the heritage roses in San Juan Bautista are on private, state, or church property.  To maintain the health of these plants, visitors are asked not to take cuttings without seeking permission from the owners.)


Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.