Of Snakes, Presidents, and Roses

Acquisition of “The” Rose

Back in the day when I was a practicing archaeologist I worked for a summer at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. It was my first real archaeology job and my parents were proud. Very proud.

Poplar Forest was TJ’s private home. After his presidency ended he split his time between Monticello and his retreat at Poplar Forest. It was his haven where he dedicated his time to reading, writing, studying, and gardening, all away from the public eye. He did not often have visitors at Polar Forest.

Did I mention he gardened there?

When I was digging at Poplar Forest there was a rumor that the rose growing in the center of the boxwood maze was actually a rose that TJ himself grew. From more recent research, it seems as though the boxwood turnaround and the ornamental Chestnut rose in the center date to the mid-19th century after TJ’s death. But, back in 2001 it was still a rumor that TJ’s very own hands might have planted that rose.

I come from a long line of rose gardeners. My mother is no exception. And when I told her of the rumored rose, she gasped with amazement.

Do you think you could get me a cutting? I could try to root it!

Famous last words. I did not want to disappoint my mother, but I should describe the boxwood turnaround a bit further.

Seriously creepy, seriously dense, seriously snakey

Seriously creepy, seriously dense, seriously snakey

The boxwoods were thick, maze-like, and most definitely the perfect home for snakes. Lots of snakes. Maybe millions. And my Indiana Jones complex is not merely made up of my love of fedoras and antiquities. Snakes are bad. They are creepy, and don’t have legs. Me and Indy? We both hate snakes with the passion of a thousand burning suns. The boxwood turnaround was most definitely a massive snake haven.

Like I said, I did not want to disappoint my proud mother. I’m pretty sure that she wouldn’t think snakes were a good excuse to pass up the opportunity to present her with the most esteemed honor of being the only gardener on the block to propagate a rose that was maybe, possibly planted by the very own hands of the third President of the United States. After I got permission to take a cutting from the precious plant, it took me two solid weeks to size up that boxwood turnaround and plan my entrance and escape routes.

I took a deep breath on the day that I would do the deed and plunged into the foliage. It was darker and scarier than I imagined and I just know I was completely surrounded by slithery creatures the whole time I performed the delicate cutting procedure. Every moment I was sure something had just slithered across my ankle, coiled around my calf, or even tickled me behind the ear with a fetid, forked tongue. One wrong move, one quick snap of a twig, could have been just the opportunity those snakes were waiting for to jump me. Boxwood foliage claustrophobically closed in around me and the snakes. Despite the very real possibility that I was close to death at any moment, I emerged triumphant and managed to avoid a deadly snake bite.

The Happy Gardener and Her Trophy

I apologize for the lengthy recounting of the acquisition of the maybe-planted-by-TJ rose. It was necessary to paint the accurate, terrifying moment of extraction so that you fully understand the impact of what happened next.

I wish I could tell you that I returned home with the trophy rose and that it cause my mother to be the envy of all the neighborhood gardeners. I wish I could tell you that people came far and wide, paid large sums of money, and stood in torrential downpours just to catch a fleeting glance of pink splendor on a garden tour of my mother’s yard. I wish I could tell you that the County Fair simply retired the trophy for the best, most perfect rose aft my mother won 10 years in a row, and decided to name the local garden club after her because no other gardener could even come close to the propagating princess that she was.

Nope. None of that happened.

She killed it.

Oh yes, you read that right. She killed it. She killed the rose that I crawled into a boxwood nest of the worlds most deadly snakes for. My snake braving was for nothing.

My apologies for the anti-climatic ending. There’s not much to say about a dead rose near a fence.

Like a Phoenix from the Ashes

Or so we thought.

Yesterday, I received a phone call at work. I have instructed friends and family members to only use my work phone number under the most paramount of situations (i.e., loss of limb, car is careening over a cliff, life is found on Mars).


The voice on the other end exclaimed! I understand that we are nearing Halloween, but the chances that my mother had been secretly cooking up her own Dr. Frankenstein’s monster in the basement was highly unlikely (though a situation of tantamount importance that would warrant using the work number).

I give, what lives?, I ask.

My mother then chatters on about how we were all noticing some pretty flowers along the fence this spring after the Osage Orange tree finally met its end. Must have been a wild rose we assumed. It’s dangerous to assume. But as it turned out, the rose wasn’t a wild rose after all, it was blossoming from the exact location of the previously presumed deceased TJ rose! On closer inspection, it was found to be thriving after years of neglect!

The actual definition of effort & surrender

The actual definition of effort & surrender

Even if TJ didn’t grow that rose, TJ did grow Chestnut roses at Monticello, and research shows that his tried and true varieties were often grown at Polar Forest. It’s likely that Chestnut roses were somewhere on the property. Furthermore, the Chestnut Rose (Rosa roxburgii plena) is a very old variety (pre-1814) that pretty much demands neglect. No need to spray, fertilize, or even water this variety. All it needs is some space and its happy. Watch out for the Japanese Beetles though, they love the blossoms! It gets is name from the spiny buds and rose hips which bear a striking resemblance to the spiny pods that protect chestnuts.

And what happened to the boxwood snake haven? The snakes got an eviction notice. About a month ago archaeologists dug it up to further research about what TJ really planted there.

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