Roses from A to Z logo


Contra Costa Times

Saturday, May 13, 2006

By Lynn Carey

IT'S A SPINDLY BUSH , but when a neighbor made fun of it, Carolyn Parker was quick to come to "her" defense.

Now that very same plant -- ALBA ROSA RUGOSA-- is the first of 26 roses in Parker's new book, R Is For Rose: Reflections From a Passionate Rose Lover (F&W Publications, 208 pages, $35).

There's a rose and a personal story for each letter of the alphabet. Parker took all the photographs in the book, many from her own garden in Lafayette. She painstakingly fashioned each featured rose bush into the corresponding letter in the alphabet, which she then photographed.

The book says as much about roses and the care and keeping of them -- including great bouquet tips -- as it tells us about Parker and her life and her friends. O, for instance, is for OKLAHOMA, the state where her artist husband, Leroy Parker, was born.

A personal story goes with each letter. "I just loved doing that," she says. Now 60, she seems much younger; in fact, she seems surprised when she does the math and realizes her age.

Creativity has been the Parker mantra ever since she and Leroy met at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. They married in 1966, and have lived various forms of artistic lives ever since. And their two grown daughters couldn't help but follow in their parents footsteps; Oneita is a costume designer in Los Angeles, and Anna does exquisite embroidery for her own company, Threads and Flowers.

Parker herself began her career in fashion. She and partner Robin Eve created the clothes for actress Annie Potts during her Designing Women years.

She changed careers in 1989 when she realized all she wanted to do was garden.

"I wanted nature as my new partner. I began spending as much a week on plants as I would on groceries."

As the buds opened, Parker experimented with large-format photography, using a Hasselblad to capture her beloved roses. "I wasn't very good, but I persisted."

She took the same approach with her photos as she did with her fashion designs; she went to New York and showed her portfolio around. A publisher bit: It wanted to do a book called The Poetry of Roses, using Parker's choice of poems and her photography. That book came out in 1995.

In the decade between books -- Parker actively worked on "R Is For Rose" for eight years -- the garden was a full-time job. Between 200 and 300 rosebushes thrive on the corner lot, where deer are deterred by a wooden fence. She carefully tends her garden for up to eight hours a day. That's why she doesn't take kindly to neighborly impertinence when it comes to her roses. They are like children. All are beautiful.

Parker also designs gardens for other people, and her home is a popular stop for garden club tours. "I want people to see it, to enjoy it, to learn from it," she explains. "I like to show people what plants can do for them. The rewards are quite in favor of the human!"

In her stark, pale pink living room -- which also serves as a photo studio, with great natural light -- a 2-inch-tall glass vase holds a posy of four tiny roses. It looks like a bouquet for a doll house, and each teensy bud is perfect. This is the rose featured in the book for R -- ROULETII, a mini-climber she found at the Celebration of Old Roses, held annually in El Cerrito.