Glory Days

The Splendor Returns to the Morcom Rose Garden


     Oakland never promised you a rose garden. But thanks to President Roosevelt’s Depression-era Works Progress Administration initiative and rose lovers at the Oakland Businessmen’s Breakfast Club back in the 1930s, the city got one. It was named for then-mayor Frank Morcom. Now, due in no small part to the passion of Oakland Public Works Agency garden crew leader Tora Rocha, the Morcom Rose Garden, which had lost its bloom along with its All American Rose Selection, or AARS, accreditation, is back to its glory days.
     Two years ago, spurred on by the challenge of getting its accreditation back (and, yes, it has), Rocha got busy in the 8 acres of rose beds in this “hidden, secret garden that many Oaklanders don’t know exist,” to quote her, with her colleague, John Demery. At the time, there was some volunteer help from a handful of neighborhood residents.
     When Rocha saw city budget cuts looming in 2009, she knew she needed to up the ante and get more volunteers.
     Around that time, two things happened. First, someone broke into the Morcom toolshed and stole the power tools. This led a neighbor, who had seen how hard Rocha and Demery were working, to send out a group e-mail asking for volunteers.
     Then, “I didn’t want to bleed people, so I thought if we were going to ask for volunteers, we should offer workshops on garden practices that people could use at home,” says Rocha. What followed was this: Someone asked Rocha about the workshops. Rocha told her: “We’re teaching deadheading.” The woman presumed this had something to do with The Grateful Dead.
     “Ding, ding, the light went on,” laughs Rocha, who studied ornamental horticulture at Merritt College and whose commitment to gardens, beauty, the environment, nature — and beautifying Oakland — infuse her life and go way beyond her job. She would train what she would call “master volunteers.” They would be called “dedicated deadheaders.” They would wear tie-dye T-shirts. Her wicked sense of humor dictated that dedicated deadheader requirements would include being able to tell a weed from a rose, knowing how to spell Morcom (“few people do,” she says) and having a passion for rock ’n’ roll. Or Vivaldi.
     The idea caught. On “pruning day” in January, 100 volunteers gathered to learn how (to prune) from East Bay Rose Society experts. Volunteers came from all over Oakland and way beyond.
     On a Saturday in February, 425 volunteers showed up in pouring rain to dig, mulch, prune and cart dirt around the garden.
     And now, any day of the week, if you stop by at the garden, you might find one of almost 50 “dedicated deadheaders” — the trained volunteers who have earned their tie-dye shirts and who are at liberty to go work in the garden at any time, unsupervised.
     The volunteers plot their hours and organize themselves in a Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden Web site (
built by Oakland tech guru, avid deadheader and T-shirt dyer Anca Mosoiu. Four volunteers have been working on a rose database where each of the 5,000-plus rose bushes will be listed. And volunteers are developing interactive maps for the site.
     Regular volunteer days are now the first Wednesday and second Saturday of each month, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. This is when Rocha and Demery are there to supervise, and when anyone can work in the garden. In a new development — one likely to attract funding for the garden — Rocha has applied for Monarch (butterfly) and Painted Lady way-station status for Morcom. This means adding certain butterfly plants to the existing butterfly garden.
     Morcom has around 900 rose varieties, with names like Julia Child, Queen Elizabeth, Julio Inglesias, Ambassador, Voodoo, Scentimental and Tahitian Sunset. Yet you could drive right past it without noticing its 700 Jean St. location, off Grand Avenue, until you know where to look. If you haven’t been, the time to stop, smell — and learn about — the roses is now. Check out the website,

Honor Your Mother
     In 1954 the city of Oakland honored its first Mother of the Year. The annual ceremony takes place at Morcom Rose Garden the Saturday before Mother’s Day. The award is designed to honor an exemplary woman (who does not literally have to be a mother) who has made a significant contribution to the city. Her name is put on a bronze plaque and embedded into a dedicated rose garden walkway, and she receives two-dozen roses a week, cut from the garden, for six months. The 2010 Mother of the Year ceremony takes place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 8, and anyone can attend. Morcom Rose Garden, 700 Jean St., Oakland.

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