Deborah Bedford


Harison's Roses

Cheryl Netter photograph

In Search of Pioneer Roses

Whenever we made the drive to see my grandparents when I was growing up, we always passed by one old rickety farmhouse, grayed from the weather, windows broken out, the porch sagging on one side. This old house had become almost hidden by its overgrowth of brambles, trees, bushes and wildflowers.

For some odd reason that we could never quite figure out, the trees and weeds and wild roses grew taller close to the porch than they did in the yard.
My father and I laughed every time we drove by, picturing a woman and a man sitting in rocking chairs on that old porch, having a seed-spitting contest—lofting seeds that would someday bury themselves in the dirt and grow.

Perhaps it is this childhood memory of one old house and those growing things that came to life in my heart when a kind gentleman appeared on our doorstep one morning to install the natural-gas fireplace we’d ordered. As he worked, he began to tell the story of his mother’s pioneer rose bush, over 150 years old, which had been brought out on a wagon along the Oregon Trail. He told me how his mother coddled the roses and how visitors stopped by to see them and, if they were lucky, to take home a cutting to start in their own gardens.

My mother-in-law, Mollie Jensen Bedford, grew up in Washington State. When I asked her if she knew anything about pioneer yellow roses, she jumping in with her own stories of them—how they grew in profusion along the yards, how they’d moved across the western states as the Oregon Trail settlers had planted them, how the girlfriends she remembered always picked them for bouquets. Harison’s Yellow roses actually originated in New York City. George Harison, an attorney and amateur rose-grower, discovered the species in the 1830s growing in his backyard. The roses were fragrant and hardy, they spread vigorously and they resisted disease, all traits uncommon in yellow roses. Harison gave a slip to Thomas Hogg, a local nurseryman, who assigned it its first and perhaps most accurate name, given how far it would soon range: “Hogg’s Yellow American Rose.” A second nurseryman, William Prince, better equipped to propagate and distribute it, renamed it ‘Harison’s Yellow.’ In an 1846 rose catalog, Prince wrote that his rose was brilliant and beautiful. He also wrote that “a hot sun makes its blooms expand and lose much of their beauty.”

Rose bushes, advertised “on their own bottoms,” not grafted, were sold for fifty and seventy-five cents. But Harison’s Yellow suckered so easily that it was most often given away. Roy Sheperd wrote in his 1954 History of the Rose that, “No old rose is more generally distributed thorough North America nor better known.”

Donna Mileti Benenson writes in Early American Homes:
‘Beloved by pioneers, this rose was carried by brides denied more cumbersome mementos of home. They kept cuttings alive stuck in raw potatoes or damp cloths. Flourishing, colonizing, the rose outlasted those who planted it and survives on abandoned homesites all over America. It haunts ghost towns and cemeteries and tumbles down gaping cellar holes. It is seen running wild the length of the Oregon Trail. Still commercially available, still cherished, and still given away as a keepsake, “Harison’s Yellow” travels back and forth across our county even today.’

When I began writing A Rose By The Door, the story of these tenacious roses came first. Bea Bartling, Gemma, and Paisley came next. As I interviewed experts on Harison’s Yellow roses, it became evident that these roses, coupled with the history of the brave pioneer women who planted them, reflect a perfect, beautiful likeness of the resilience that God has created in each of our human spirits. On a deeper level, these roses are a humbling representation of God’s faithfulness to us and our faith—which is totally dependent upon Him—blooming back to him, through us.

May the Father’s love bring its season of blooming into your heart.


Letters about Harison's Roses:

You are never going to believe this 'blessed' story! I don't believe it...but, I lived it! Notice the date on your E-mail to me (below)...I have been 'continually' trying to get an "Oregon Trail Rose" to no avail! I couldn't even find one I could look at to see if I really, really wanted one. The only one I could find on the internet was almost $30 PLUS shipping and handling. So, I almost gave up...but did give it to the Lord to worry about.

I continued on with my genealogy process...(I was given up for adoption at birth...just now getting around to digging up my 'roots'). This week I went on a quick jaunt to Boise, ID where my birth-father's maternal ancestors had settled...they had 3 donation land claims, the largest being just outside Emmett, Idaho. I don't know if you know anything about Idaho but when I think about Idaho I think of rolling hills of brown, dry, arid land...dirty, dusty, hot, windy, etc. NOT a place I would imagine my Pennsylvania German ancestors would want to cross the entire country to settle. I HAD to go see it! time like NOW (June), right!
As I travelled I shook my head..."Why would ANYBODY want to leave PA and come here? Why would ANYBODY want to live here...EVER!" Mile after mile I thought that...and though less and less of my birth/blood ancestors. Then, we went over the last hill and below us lay Emmett, Idaho...the most beautiful, lush, green, rich valley I ever saw. We drove right to the Donation Land Claim. It is now a fruit tree farm.

There was 360 acres so it took us a while to drive around it...and in the very back of the property...I saw my first "Oregon Trail Rose" (Harison's yellow). MOST GORGEOUS SIGHT EVER! Being June it was FULL of the brightest yellow I'd ever seen. NEVER have I seen a rose like this. And, there was one after another of them! All were well over 8' tall...they must be VERY old because they were HUGE!

We took cuttings...about 12 of them...laid them in the back of the car and took off for home. (Portland, 8 hrs away). When we got home they were wilted and I put them in vases hoping they'd perk up. Sure enough, when I got up this morning this is the view that greeted was breathtaking!

Hope you enjoy! As soon as I get them started and going well, I will send you one!

Doneva Shepard in OR
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Harison's Yellow. Hybrid Foetida.  (1830)
MM One annual flowering. A native of Asia and a member of a large family of yellow specie roses.  The flowers are brilliant yellow, about 2 1/2 inches across, and are cupped and double. Among the most fragrant of its group, the blossoms are borne on short stems
all along the very thorny canes.  The foliage is small and fernlike.
MMOften called the "Pioneer Rose" because of the stories of plantings all along the 49'er Trail where it still exists, it is a rose of history.

Below are some links to information about Harison's Yellow Rose. Let me know if you have any others.
I also want to begin a map to share with you of where these roses are blooming. . .so if you have a Harison's Yellow Rose email me!
Corn Hill Nursery