On a bright, August afternoon, a half-dozen people pick their way through two adjacent rose beds in the Public Garden. Some wear straw hats; all wear thick, green rubber gloves as they bend over to prune bushes, remove dead blooms and otherwise tend to the roses.
None of them works for the city — they are members of the “Rose Brigade,” volunteer gardeners who show up every Tuesday. They’ve been working on the beds for 25 years, and China Altman has been there from the beginning.
Wearing a hairband to hold back her shaggy, chin-length red hair, Altman stands in one bed assigning tasks, chatting with tourists, and demonstrating rose-care techniques. “Come around here, dear,” she says to a new volunteer who squats down to get a better look. “Keeping the ground very clean is one of the secrets to keeping roses healthy.”
Altman founded, nurtures, and runs the Rose Brigade. She trains volunteers, acts as a liaison to the city Parks and Recreation Department, and sends out a weekly e-mail addressed to the “People of the Roses.”
“We had the best turnout of the season last Tuesday,” she wrote in mid-August. “It was so much fun. Our roses are abundant and healthy — there was a tiny bit of black spot in Mr. Hale last week but we eliminated it and will be watchful.”
Leaves with black spots are a sign of stress. Mr. Hale is what Altman named the rose bed next to the statue of 19th-century author and clergyman Edward Everett Hale. Its twin is the Mr. Lincoln bed — a reference to its abudance of a red rose variety of the same name.
She admires the blooms: “Look at Mr. Lincoln, how beautiful he is.”
Altman moves slowly, sometimes with a cane. In her 70s — she won’t say where — she’s energetic despite several serious ailments, including heart failure. On the short side, Altman walks with a gait that might look elderly, but her complexion is surprisingly youthful. Wrinkles appear around her mouth when she smiles or laughs, which is often, especially when she talks about the roses.
“There are so many things I like about roses, and I like them better all the time,” she says. “I find that they are absolutely, remarkably robust, while being remarkably fragile.” The key to their care is to concentrate on their robust side.
Two other beds sit on the Arlington Street side of the side of the Public Garden, one either side of the landmark statue of George Washington. One is called the Tiffany Bed and the other is the Ether Bed, which is near a monument to the role of Boston doctors in the development of anesthesia.
Altman says she doesn’t have a favorite rose, but lists some of the “star” varieties: Touch of Class, Peace, Swarthmore, Mr. Lincoln, Chrysler Imperial, Sheer Bliss, Iceberg, Double Delight, Duet and Garden Party. Tourists, couples, and pram-pushing parents who pass through the Public Garden constantly stop, ask questions, take pictures, or just gaze at the roses. A middle-age woman with long, straight hair and a red T-shirt squints and shades her eyes with one hand. “Hi,” she says. “I’m just watching to learn how to take care of the roses.”
“What’s your name?” Altman calls. She directs Judy to a stack of neon green cards in a toy truck that sits just outside the hedge encircling the rose bed. They read: “NEW VOLUNTEERS ARE WELCOME! Even for a day. Gloves and tools provided.”
Five years ago, Susan Bomba stopped to ask about the roses. Now, she shows up each week, often in a wide-brimmed straw hat that keeps her long blond hair in check. To her, Altman’s role is clear.
“There would be no Rose Brigade without China, “ Bomba says. “She’s the captain.”
Considering her name and her tie to one of Boston’s showpiece gardens, it would be logical to imagine Altman as a blue-blooded garden club type. In reality, she’s a feisty former journalist who, as she tells it, ran away from her home in Georgia when she was 16 and talked her way into college. A career in journalism beckoned, so Mary Helen Altman took the gender-neutral first name China. Female journalists were still mostly relegated to the “women’s pages,” and Altman wanted to write serious news.
“I thought I would confuse the editors and that they would publish my stuff before they realized I was a woman,” she says.
Altman worked for the United Press International wire service, and eventually, magazines such as Life and People. Her career took her to Europe and eventually to Boston for a stint in television and radio. Along the way, she did interviews, wrote stories, married and divorced two husbands, and lost one baby.
She settled into a Commonwealth Avenue apartment, and in the 1980s, joined a neighborhood effort to clean up trash in the Public Garden. After the park’s budget was increased and city staff took over the upkeep, Altman and another volunteer turned their attention to the ailing rose beds. But she knew nothing about taking care of roses.
Over the years she has learned. Altman says she has spent hours reading up on care, but thinks the key to good care is “observation, understanding, and monitoring. My biggest teacher is the roses.”
The effort was semi-clandestine until 1999, when the group formalized a partnership with the nonprofit Friends of the Public Garden. In 2003, Altman walked up to the podium at the Friends group’s annual meeting to accept an award.
I said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and just turned around and leaned over the way you do when you are working in the garden. I said, ‘If you don’t recognize me from the front, a lot of you will recognize me from this position, because I think more people in Boston have seen my bottom than ever saw the bottoms of show girls at the Old Howard,’ ” she says, referring to a long-gone city theater that hosted burlesque shows in the 1950s.
Altman says she also has a good relationship with the other rose partner: the Parks and Recreation Department. It hasn’t always been that way. Sometimes, the two organizations can get in each other’s way.
“There are good days and bad days but there hasn’t been a bad day for a long time,” says Bernie Lynch, city parks director.
He praised Altman for her work, and Altman is effusive about the city’s role in caring for the roses. But Altman realizes she can be a bit demanding.
“Sometime I’m too bossy, and sometimes I’m a pain . . .,” she says.
For all her energy, her heart ailment and a bout of lymphoma have Altman and others thinking about the Rose Brigade’s future. She has other passions, including animal rights (she is a vegan) and art. Other than her roses, she works with flowers that are homemade, with long wire stems, curled petals, and delicate spiral stamens made out of recycled materials such as bottle caps and foil candy wrappers.
But the roses clearly dominate her days. She realizes that she going to have to let go of some of her duties and delegate them to others. At the same time, she resents any suggestion that’s she’s no longer robust. She takes a cue from the roses. At they get older, they grow stronger roots and become more prolific and resistant to disease.
“One of the things that I personally like about roses is that they are one of the only things in the American culture,” she says, her voice rising, “which we know is much, much, much, much better when it is OLD!”
In the meantime, she sends out her e-mails and shows up at the Public Garden every Tuesday. Like Altman, the other Brigade members find inspiration in the rose beds. They often refer to Tuesday nights as therapeutic or meditative.
“I love it. It’s so invigorating,” says Kay Herbst, as she surveyed one of the beds. ”We’re taking care of ourselves.”
Altman believes the people who walk by each year get something out of it. too: “They see us doing it and they know we are not paid to do it and they see that we are happy.”
Or, as she likes to put it: “We’re taking care of the roses, but we’re doing so much more.”