One of Don Thacker’s fondest memories as a Royal Rosarian is waving to fans during Portland’s annual Grand Floral Rose Parade in June. There’s nothing like marching through the City of Roses — Portland’s enduring nickname — in their signature double-breasted white suits and straw hats as the crowd buzzes with energy. While the 2020 and 2021 parades were canceled due to COVID-19, Thacker and the Rosarians dream of marching again in 2022.
For more than a century, Rosarians like Thacker, 64, have proudly served as the official greeters and goodwill ambassadors for the city of Portland. The civic organization has welcomed visiting dignitaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt and James Earl Jones, marched in parades throughout North America, and planted Oregon roses in more than 30 cities worldwide.
Despite COVID-19 halting many of their beloved traditions, the Rosarians’ community spirit and generosity carry on. “We’ve made lemonade out of lemons,” says Thacker, a Rosarian knighted in 2011 and the organization’s prime minister from 2018 to 2019. “Last year we paraded down a street decked out for the Porch Parade event. Spread out every 20 feet, we doffed our hats and brought pomp and circumstance. The neighborhood was thrilled.”
For You a Rose in Portland Grows
Rosarians most famously shepherd the Portland Rose Festival in partnership with the Portland Rose Festival Foundation and the Portland Rose Society, which was founded in 1889 as the first rose society in the nation. In a typical festival season, Rosarians travel to locations as far-flung as the New Westminster Hyack Festival in British Columbia, representing Portland as the City of Roses. Prime minister delegations travel outside the Pacific Northwest for festivals such as Fiestas de Octubre in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Ambassador duties have taken Rosarians to airports, train stations, hotels, bus stations, ships, and even the circus to welcome political officials, sports figures, military leaders, and celebrities to Portland. Though Rosarians often live in the Portland Region, there are members throughout Oregon and even out of state. Their iconic slogan, “For you a rose in Portland grows,” hearkens back to the organization’s early years when Portland established itself as the City of Roses. In Portland and around the world, Rosarians share these words during rose planting ceremonies as a gesture of hospitality and goodwill.
While gardening skills are not a prerequisite for membership, Rosarians have a small rose garden within the International Rose Test Garden in Washington Park — which is open for self-guided touring and free public tours offered daily in the summer. Rosarians recognize outstanding community members with rose plantings and honorary knightings. For their 100th anniversary in 2012, the organization commissioned a bronze Royal Rosarian statue in the Washington Park rose garden as a gift to the city of Portland.
Rose City Spirit of Generosity
Beyond the festivals and pageantry, Rosarians’ charitable contributions run deep. “Before I joined 16 years ago, I didn’t realize how many things the Rosarians did outside of the Rose Festival,” says Korrie Hoeckendorf, the Rosarians’ prime minister from 2020 to 2021. “We are more than white suits who march in parades. Our programs branch out in the community in many different ways.”
Since its inception, the Royal Rosarians have championed not only the Rose Festival but local children’s programs, too. Their charitable commitment became official in 1996 with the Royal Rosarian Foundation. Rosarians fund field trips for local elementary and middle school students from low-income households, take children shopping during the holidays to buy them and their families clothing and gifts, and provide a grant for Portland’s Community Transitional School. They also partner with Ethos Music Center to fund music lessons, performances and workshops for kids who may not have had these opportunities otherwise.
Rooted in Tradition
English royal history inspires Rosarians’ rich pageantry and the “Mythical Realm of Rosaria,” as it’s called. The organization’s council titles derive from the court of King Henry VII, whose ascension to the English throne in 1485 ushered in peace and prosperity after the War of the Roses. The Queen of Rosaria raises her royal scepter and knights Rosarians into official membership during traditional ceremonies. Rosarians have also conducted hundreds of honorary knightings for notable locals and dignitaries such as actress Betty White and professional baseball player Hank Aaron.
Today the Rosarians include more than 250 members. Hoeckendorf laughingly shares that up until a decade ago, membership consisted primarily of people ages 60 and older. In the past 10 to 12 years, though, young people and their families have brought new energy into the organization. Now members span in age from their mid-thirties to nineties. “New members help revitalize the organization,” Hoeckendorf says.
Hoeckendorf, 66, says she’s proud to be a wife, mother and grandmother, but being a Royal Rosarian is something just for her. “It means a lot to me that I have a page in the history of this organization that has so much tradition behind it,” she says. “Royal Rosarians are a strong family. We’ve rallied together to continue representing the city of Portland and supporting the community.”
Thacker shares the sentiment that Rosarians’ community spirit will continue forward. “Historically, whether we’re at the airport or walking down the street in our white suits, people stop us, recognize us and ask for photos,” Thacker says. “Newcomers may wonder, ‘Who are these people in the white suits?’ We are still here and we are still relevant, even though those uniforms are a replica from 1912 when the Royal Rosarians first marched.”
See the Blooms
Visit the roses in bloom in Portland’s three public rose gardens between May and October, with June being the peak month.
The International Rose Test Garden at Washington Park in Northwest Portland features more than 10,000 rose bushes of 610 varieties, in hues from deep reds, purples and pinks to yellow, orange, white and more. The garden was originally established as a testing ground and safe haven for hybrid roses grown in Europe during World War I, which were feared to be destroyed in bombings.
Ladd Circle Park and Rose Gardens in Southeast Portland is a neighborhood subdivision in a diagonal street grid that includes four diamond-shaped rose gardens located on the points of a compass. Planted more than a century ago by a former city park superintendent, the walkable gardens feature more than 3,000 roses of 60 varieties that were popular in the early 20th century.
Peninsula Park Rose Garden in North Portland is Oregon’s oldest public rose garden, designed and built in a traditional French design in 1913 by Emanuel Mische, who went on to become the city’s first parks director. More than a hundred years later it’s a community oasis with its thousands of blooms, ornamental fountain, brick walkways and gazebo-like pavilion, a National Heritage landmark.