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Just beyond the Sullivan’s Island Lighthouse sits an old whitewashed beach cottage with shutters painted a violet-tinged indigo. The roof is tin, and there’s a comfortable porch where two English cocker spaniels spend their mornings enjoying the sun. In the summer months, the walk is lined with a rich profusion of red China roses, thriving in the salt air. Every rose in the garden was collected over the years by Ruth Knopf who has lived in the cottage since 1990.
There are the Belfield roses she bought back from her travels to Bermuda—one of the earliest roses from China and the one largely responsible for the red color found in today’s roses. Then there’s the “Emmie Gray,” named for a schoolteacher who loved it so much that she’d often root it and present it to others. Along the fence that borders the yard are climbing China roses interspersed with Knopf’s favorites, pastel tea roses. And happily stretching over the arbor to the fence climbs the big, blooming “Fields of the Wood” that was found in a North Carolina campground.
Knopf began her collection in the mid-1970s, when she remembered a single-petaled rose—a bloom that, like a daisy, has a single row of petals surrounding a center—from her childhood and set out to find it. “I just decided one day to plant the flowers that I really liked,” she says. “I guess I remembered roses that were very different from the ones we have today.”
That simple quest was the beginning of a passion that would later earn her a reputation throughout the world as an authority on antique roses. In the middle of the 20th century, old roses fell out of fashion as the hybrid tea variety became en vogue. But the new plants with large, uniform blooms weren’t as hardy as the ones they replaced—they easily became diseased and required more maintenance. While hybrid teas surged in popularity, old roses became difficult to find. Because they were no longer in demand, nurseries no longer carried them, and they started down the road to extinction.
Knopf’s initial interest in roses began later in life in Edgemoor, South Carolina, where she lived with her husband, John, a minister, and their two daughters, Caroline and Kareen. Unable to find the heritage blooms she remembered in nurseries, Knopf began her search by talking to other gardeners and rose collectors. She bought old books on gardening from yard sales and used book stores. She even found a mail order catalog based on the West Coast that sold some vintage roses. And then she met Ruth Westwood.
The elderly gardener, who has long since passed away, lived in a quiet cottage in Newberry, South Carolina with a rose garden she sometimes opened to the public. It was on one such occasion that Knopf made her acquaintance. “Her roses were so beautiful,” she recalls. “It was the first time I ever saw such an intriguing collection of roses. I was so impressed by their variety.”
When Knopf admired a large bush laden with tiny pink roses, she knew she had to have one for herself, but Westwood said, “Child, you can’t buy that rose. Just come back one day and get all the cuttings you want,” remembers Knopf. Upon confessing that she didn’t know how to root roses, the older woman volunteered to teach her.
“I went back. I was very interested,” recalls Knopf. “She had an old tin wash tub with holes punched in the bottom, and it was filled with sand and peat moss. In the fall, she would put all of her cuttings in there, and set it up on bricks under a tree so that it wouldn’t get direct sunlight.” It was from her elder mentor that she learned many tricks to the art of gardening.
And so Knopf began collecting roses. She found them in churchyards, cemeteries, old homesteads, and vacant lots. She carried plastic bags, clippers, and a camera with her, and when she saw something she wanted, she knocked on strangers’ doors to ask for cuttings.
Collecting old roses is a painstaking process. Even today, when Knopf discovers something she wants, she photographs it in its original setting and records where she found it. Then she cultivates it and shares it with other rose collectors. She also bestows upon it what is referred to in horticultural circles as a “found” name until the plant is identified—if it ever is. These have included, over the years, such memorable monikers as “Tradd Street Yellow,” “German Cemetery Rose,” and “Heart-Petal Rose.” Two collectors have even named roses in her honor: the “Miss Ruth” and the “Ruth Knopf.”
When Knopf’s husband died suddenly, she moved into a cottage on Sullivan’s Island and started a new garden—and a reputation in Charleston. In 1995 when the late Nancy McRae was unsuccessful with growing roses at Boone Hall, she called in Knopf to help. “Nothing was working for her,” recalls Knopf. “I talked her into trying some older varieties. She liked the idea and said, ‘Why don’t you come be our gardener?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’ve never done that for anybody but myself.’”
Despite her modesty, Knopf accepted and began the difficult task of designing the gardens for the formal beds that were already in existence. In addition to old roses—Chinas, Teas, and Noisettes—she used plants that would have been in old Southern gardens, like larkspur, poppies, violas, snowdrops, and narcissus. The result was a profusion of colors and blooms, abundant and untamed, gracefully spilling out onto the walkways and enchanting the guests who visit the old plantation.
“Ruth is a recognized authority on antique roses,” says Jenks Farmer, who met her several years ago when he was the curator at the Riverbanks Botanical Garden in Columbia. “More importantly she’s a great garden designer. She knows how to use roses in gardens. She has a gift and a sensitivity for combining colors and textures to show off their attributes.”
Twenty years ago when JoAnn Breland, horticulturist for the city of Charleston, became interested in old roses, she called a nursery in California for advice. “They told me that I had the expert right here in my own state,” Breland says. Since then, the two have become good friends and colleagues. In 2001, the Heritage Rose Conference, which takes place every two years in cities all around the world, came to Charleston at Knopf’s invitation. “A part of the planning was a need to make to make it more than just a conference; we wanted something that would have a lasting contribution,” says Breland, who was on the committee with Knopf that prepared for the event.
To do this, Knopf and Breland established the Noisette Study Garden at Hampton Park to grow a complete collection of the Noisette class—which traces its origins to Charleston—for viewing and studying. In the early 1800s, John Champneys, a Lowcountry plantation owner, crossed a Chinese rose, “Old Blush,” with a European musk rose to create “Champneys’ Pink Cluster,” which he gave to his neighbor Philippe Noisette. Noisette propagated the rose and sent seedlings to his brother Louis in France, who used it to develop the “Blush Noisette.”
“Before the study garden, no one had truly collected or studied all of the Noisettes,” says Breland. “There were no materials to compare them to other than pictures and writings. Now we really have a foundation that future generations can build on because we did the DNA studies.” In addition to the study garden, Knopf and the committee created the Heritage Rose Trail. From St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to the Nathaniel Russell House Museum, sites throughout the peninsula were planted with roses for the public to see, and a map was published with a list of the roses and their locations.
Since the Heritage Rose Conference, Knopf has been busy with a host of other projects, including many consulting jobs where she designs gardens. She also lectures and writes about roses, and travels often on her quest for new roses. In 2005, she was recognized for her contribution to the field of horticulture when she was given the Charleston Horticulture Society’s first 1830 Award which honors exemplary service and creative vision—the ideals held by CHS since its inception. “I think it’s important for people to know that plants can be a part of your heritage,” says Knopf, whose work as a rosarian has undoubtedly been a driving force in preserving the legacy of old roses.
In her turn-of-the-century beach cottage on Sullivan’s Island with her dogs at her feet, Knopf sits on a toile armchair in a sun-filled room with 12-foot ceilings amid bookshelves crammed with books on gardening and talks about roses. “I just like roses,” she says simply. “I really love the old ones. I think they’re interesting because they’re varied; they don’t all look just alike. Well, no rose looks alike, of course, but what I mean is they’re not just the same form. And roses are tough; they’ve been here a long time. They don’t need a lot of help, so you don’t have to slave away and do all the different fertilizing and spraying. Of course, you have to take care of them and keep them healthy just like any other living thing. But when you find them, they’ve already proven themselves.”