By Tom Marshall
A suspected gang-related shooting this past summer in Max Berg Plaza Park prompted San Clemente city officials to remove objects that gang members could hide behind.
As a result, 6-foot-tall beds of white roses were dug up and thrown away. No big deal, right? Not so fast. It turns out the roses were of historic value. Therein lies the tale of the “Peace Roses.”
In 1935, French rose breeder Francis Meilland developed a seedling that promised to become a sturdier rose bush than previously available, which could flourish in many climates. Four years later, it was officially celebrated by gardening professionals.
Three months after that, Hitler rolled into France at the outbreak of World War II. Three of the bushes were secretly smuggled out of France. One of them was actually sent to the United States in a diplomatic pouch. It did so well in the U.S. that it was decided to propagate thousands of plants for sale.
It was planned that the rose would be introduced to the public in a special ceremony on April 29, 1945, in Pasadena. By coincidence, that is the day Berlin fell and the war in Europe came to an end.
Two white doves were released at the ceremony as it was announced that “this greatest new rose of our time should be named for the world’s greatest desire: Peace.” Within nine years, an estimated 30 million Peace Rose bushes flowered around the world.
Later in 1945, a Peace Rose was given to all 49 delegates at the first meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco.
Three of Max Berg Park’s Peace Rose bushes were dedicated by First Lady Pat Nixon in 1970 shortly after President Richard Nixon and his family moved to San Clemente. Others were originally planted by the local American Legion Post 423.
Removal of the bushes has upset neighborhood residents and the board of directors of the Historical Society.
“Nobody knew in advance that the city was going to tear out the bushes. They are representative of early San Clemente,” lamented American Legion Post Commander Michael Rogers.
“All of us in the neighborhood were really upset about this,” said Jim Gatacre, a resident of the neighborhood since 1951.
He is donating three Peace Rose bushes to be planted in the park early next year. He is asking others to do the same. City staff has named Gatacre as coordinator for the planting. Laura Bard of the San Clemente Garden Club says the group will do the actual planting.
Originally named San Clemente Plaza Park, it once had a pond with black and white swans. The name was changed to honor longtime City Clerk Max Berg, who had gained fame touring with Bob Crosby as a comedian during WWII.
In the 1980s, a concrete pavilion was added. Gatacre and others would like that to be torn down, restoring the original look of the park. But, that’s a story for another time.
Tom Marshall is a member of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.