One by one, Connie Hilker has eyed all 130 or so roses in Hollywood Cemetery, making notes about the condition, type and growth habit.
On Saturday, she will lead a volunteer effort to provide some much-needed TLC to the roses, many of which are older varieties not readily available elsewhere.
“Some of them are struggling. Some of them are thriving. Some need only their dead wood removed, and that’s really all that should happen to them,” Hilker said. “Others are going to need a little bit more, and that’s why I’ve been visiting each one, photographing them and making notes.”
Hilker knows her roses. She is owner of Hartwood Roses, a Fredericksburg-area display and educational garden specializing in rare and historic roses. To say she loves roses is an understatement — she has 800 varieties. She got out of the retail business to spend more time teaching about roses.
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She has been coming to Hollywood Cemetery for the past 10 years to check out the roses, which is one reason she jumped at the chance to help when Kelly Jones Wilbanks, development director at the cemetery, came to a Richmond Rose Society meeting looking for volunteers.
“All she really wanted was someone to come and do the work. Then I talked to her, and realized that they didn’t have an inventory of what they had, and I volunteered to start the process,” Hilker said.
That was last summer. During the fall, Hilker met with Donald Toney, grounds foreman/supervisor at the cemetery.
“He’s been here since 1967. … Through December and into January, he made a list of every rose he could find on the cemetery grounds. Then he took that list and put it on a map of the cemetery,” Hilker said.
The roses are mapped by section and lot location. The parklike cemetery covers 135 acres. Among the people buried there are American presidents, Virginia governors and Supreme Court justices.
Because Hilker is familiar with many of the roses and has photographed some of them during the past 10 years, she is able to spot omissions. For instance, one rose she knows is or was there is not on the map. But she has a photo she took on a previous visit.
“Is it not on his list because it doesn’t exist anymore? Or is it not on his list because it’s leafless and it’s growing in a crape myrtle?” Hilker said.
Because roses are leafless and bloomless this time of year, some of the identification will have to wait. Hilker said others may have cataloged the roses, but that information is not in the cemetery’s records.
So far, about two dozen people have volunteered for the work day, Hilker said. “We’re going to divide them up into groups. Everybody’s going to have a section of the cemetery to work on and a list of roses within that section.”
Most of the volunteers are people who simply like roses and want to help, but Hilker also has asked some rose experts to come and help mentor.
“All of the roses that are here, for the most part, are old roses, but you never really know,” Hilker said. They also have been able to survive with very little care. She has seen some decline over recent years because of the summer droughts.
“My real interest is preserving old roses and teaching people about them,” Hilker said. “Part of that for five years was propagating and selling the old roses. But most people don’t know about them. You can’t go to a store and get them. You really have to go to a specialty nursery or know someone.”