GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
 

Tournament of Roses
WRITTEN BY AMY BRAVERMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARY LOU UTTERMOHLEN
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A late-blooming rose expert, 78-year-old Eve Jones is a perennial on the competition circuit, showing and judging roses with the nation’s best.

Ouch!” For the second time in ten minutes, Eve Spiro Jones, PhB’46, SB’48, SM’48, PhD’53, burns her thumb on the hot-glue gun she’s using to secure Mardi Gras beads to a curved, foot-long woven branch. Standing at her Sheraton New Orleans bathroom sink on a Thursday night in April, the 78-year-old psychologist wears a green apron with a mauve rose design on the bib as she twines the shiny silver, gold, pink, purple, and green strands, barber’s pole style, around the branch.

The beaded branch will bridge two white, mushroom-shaped containers, one large and one small, that Jones plans to fill with clusters of Nicole roses—white blooms with deep-pink tips—from her yard. She’ll enter the arrangement in Saturday’s American Rose Society (ARS) Spring National Rose Show under the “stretch” category, for designs with a smaller section stretched from a larger unit via some connecting apparatus. Although it’s the first time Jones has entered this category, she thinks the beads conform well to its New Orleans theme, “Throw Me Something Mister,” the call that scantily clad women shout to bead-tossing men on Mardi Gras parade floats.

The hotel dresser and desk are covered with props, also transported from Jones’s Los Angeles home, to use in other arrangements: For her “Voodoo” entry there’s a grotesque candle holder with dark, upward-reaching, arm-like sticks, which she plans to top with red, sparsely petalled Altissimo roses. For “Beignets and Café au Lait” she has a breakfast tray with Blue Flower Royal Copenhagen porcelain and a matching sake pitcher she’ll fill with white hybrid tea roses. For “The French Quarter” Jones packed a flat, round, beret-like black tray that will hold miniature roses. Because the Asian-themed categories come easily to her, she says, she’ll also enter “The Geisha,” “East Meets West,” and “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Tonight she prepares the arrangements’ props and complementary filler. On the floor lie curly gold wire, bamboo, palm and iris leaves, pussy willows, ferns, flowering plum and cherry, Japanese maple, copper beech, magnolia, hypericum, jointed grass, and flax. She also traveled to New Orleans with a large cardboard box, filled with five dozen roses, which she won’t open until late Friday night or early Saturday morning, when she will reassemble the arrangements in the show room on the hotel’s third floor.

On Monday Jones carefully packed the insulated rose box, lining the sides with blue ice packs and covering the bottom with a three-inch-thick Styrofoam sheet. She’d already stuck the bottom of each rose’s stem into a water- and plant-preservative-filled test tube, topped with a rubber stopper. She stabbed the pointed test tubes into the Styrofoam, each stem far enough from the others so the blooms wouldn’t touch and bruise. She then covered the roses with a deep, open-bottom Lucite box.

Despite all her care, she’s a bit worried about her roses because at the airport Transportation Security Administration officials cut open the box, even lifting the Lucite. Between that invasion and the $180 the airline charged for her oversized, overweight package, Jones was almost in tears before boarding the plane. Plus, she had come to New Orleans early, on Tuesday, to attend some of the week’s rose society pre-show events, such as Wednesday’s River Road Plantation tour. So the box has been sitting all week in a room that the Sheraton designated for cold storage, longer than she normally would leave them. Worse, in a space-saving effort she had placed the Nicole roses on top of the others, hoping they would all come through undamaged.

Jones has been caring for roses since L.A.’s 1971 earthquake forced her out of her neighborhood and into Hancock Park, where the big house she bought had 150 rose bushes. “I had to learn,” Jones says, “and I had to learn fast.” She learned, for example, that roses need at least six hours of sunlight a day. They need 32 elements, especially nitrogen for stem growth and foliage, phosphorus for the blooms and “floriforousness,” and potassium for the roots. They need to be watered every other day in dry Los Angeles, and their blooms may be covered—perhaps with a plastic baggie—when it does rain.

Now a consulting rosarian who receives weekly advice-seeking calls from around the nation and editor of the Pacific Rose Society’s monthly magazine, Jones has almost 900 rose bushes, including “all the different classes of rose,” she says—floribundas, climbers, hybrid teas, miniatures, shrubs, and old garden roses (OGR).

Although the OGRs are her favorites, they’re fragile and don’t exhibit as well as hardy hybrid teas, for example. The center petals of a good exhibition rose, she explains, rise to a tall point. Its outside petals rest above or at—never below—the horizon, and the inner petals form a spiral. Its general shape is triangular, its foliage is proportional to the bloom’s size, and it has no blemishes.

For years Jones was interested only in the roses she enjoyed, not whether they exhibited well. “I love the mauves, the browns, the tans, the off colors that some people would never have in their gardens and some judges won’t even look at in a show.” She joined the ARS for its monthly magazine, which offered useful rose-growing tips, but she thought the local society members, people who knew the names of different roses, who awoke at ungodly hours to prepare for shows, were haughty.

Ten years ago, however, Jones received a phone call from Louis Desamero, a well-known rosarian looking to start a new local chapter. She told Desamero that she didn’t “do well in groups,” that groups tended to dislike intelligent people, and that she had a generally unfavorable view of rose growers. But he persuaded her to attend a meeting of the Tinseltown society, and to her surprise she liked the other members, including a woman who had given up orthopaedic surgery to play bass in the L.A. Symphony and several other M.D.s and Ph.D.s.

In 1996 the head of the Tinseltown group asked Jones to take the national judging exam in San Diego. She was the only Tinseltown member who had been an ARS member long enough to qualify, so she attended the two-day class and passed the test to judge horticulture—the roses themselves as opposed to arrangements, which are judged not only on the roses’ quality but also on the designs’ creativity and how well they conform to a given theme. (She passed the arrangements judging exam two years ago.)

But “they don’t let you judge if you’ve never entered,” she says, and she had to learn rose names to exhibit. She began studying 3,000 of the 20,000-plus rose names, and in 1997 she entered the San Fernando Valley’s annual show. After the judging was over she noticed some of her roses missing from their designated places. “Have you looked at the trophy table?” a friend asked. “So I went to look, and there, smack in the middle, high up on top were my French Lace,” which had won Best Floribunda. Of her 32 entries, 30 won ribbons or trophies. “It was really a kick,” Jones says. “I just walked around on air for a couple days.”

That kick sparked feelings the longtime psychologist—who, though retired, practices rebirthing and breath therapy with at least one patient a day and teaches a weekly class at West Los Angeles City College—hadn’t experienced in years. “I realized I hadn’t competed in anything since high school,” Jones says. “It’s been a lesson in patience, humility, and sportsmanship.” Since then she’s brought home at least one trophy from every rose show she’s entered—about 15 a year—though she’s hit a slow streak recently and hasn’t won a big prize in her last few shows.

After that first win, her confidence grew. Already an experienced columnist—from 1954 to the late 1960s she wrote a syndicated column, “Parents’ World,” for the Chicago Daily News—she began writing a column for the Tinseltown Rose Society’s monthly magazine, an ARS award winner. Over the phone, at society meetings, and at local rose shows, other experts began debating the columns with her.

At a Tinseltown meeting three or four years ago the gray-haired, 4-foot-113/4-inch Jones stood her ground against a 6-foot-plus man who argued with her use of the word “auxin”—which she remembered from her Chicago biological-science sequence—to describe the substance that determines stem and leaf growth patterns. When she wrote about soil sickness, one well-known grower argued that it didn’t exist—an ongoing debate. The same grower also disputes her suggestion that jetsam will heal roses of a fungus that causes the disease amalaria. Competing, learning to stand up against world-renowned experts, and her incessant gardening, she says, have kept her young.

Youthfulness matters to Jones. “I’m convinced decrepitude is preventable,” she says. She avoids unhealthy foods and takes almost 70 pills each day—30-some at night and even more in the morning. Just as she sprays her roses with minerals, she gives her body niacin, Vitamins C and E, and many other supplements to make up what her diet doesn’t provide. Taking magnesium, she says proudly, helped bring her bone density from osteopenia levels eight years ago to the 95th percentile for a 30-year-old today. Aside from a few wrinkles and swollen feet after standing for too long, Jones is a picture of health, with “the same energy level as when I was in college.”

Her energy assessment seems accurate. After staying up until 3 a.m. to prepare her arrangements, by 10 a.m. Friday morning Jones, in a salmon blouse and light pink slacks, is checking out the Merchandise Marketplace, where merchants sell rose jewelry, rose stationery, rose hand lotion, rose slippers, gardening gloves, fertilizer, garden sprayers, roses by the bunch, and rose bushes. The customers are mostly older, heterosexual couples—burly male gardener/farmer types and their solid, demure wives—or gay couples. Women wear rose-printed tops, pants, scarves, shoes, or hats. An excited group in the corner checks out an Oregon hybrider’s newest roses—one bush with large, full, light-pink blooms he’s named Ground Zero and another with similarly lush, hot-pink blooms called Nine Eleven.

Jones decides not to buy any “kitsch” in the marketplace. She leaves to lunch at the hotel café with some ARS friends. Their discussion about roses, health, and love—including Jones’s three marriages, two to fellow Chicago alumni—lasts two hours, and they miss the afternoon seminar on Josephine Bonaparte, who collected roses with the same passion that Napoleon collected countries.

After lunch Jones finds Lew Schute, the national chair for rose-arrangements judges, who has promised to come to Jones’s room to critique her arrangements. The gray-haired but youthful Schute looks at the breakfast tray. “I like the color,” he purrs. “What if we put the cup on its side?” He leans the teacup sideways on its saucer. “Oh, I like that,” Jones says. Schute admires the “Voodoo” candle holder, but it needs more height, he says. “Do you have a platform to put it on?” The two construct a platform out of two black trays from the bathroom—the ones that had held the hotel’s coffee pot and mugs—and two cylindrical containers of floral foam.

Schute’s visit increases Jones’s excitement about the show. She skips the evening’s entertainment, a Mississippi River dinner cruise on a paddlewheel boat, to tweak the arrangements and open her rose box. She’s learned that she can get into the exhibition room tonight and won’t have to wake up at 4 a.m. to prepare her roses before the 8:30 judges’ breakfast—she’s evaluating horticulture—and the 9 a.m. judging.

A hotel security guard unlocks the cold-storage room. “It’s not very cold in here,” Jones says. “It should be 34 degrees.” The room’s thermostat reads 64. She inspects a group of tall, unboxed roses, with red, pink, white, and yellow blooms wrapped in plastic baggies. “These are shot,” she says. “See how their outside petals are sagging? Whoever belongs to these roses is going to be pissed.” She points to large picnic coolers along the wall. “Those will probably be all right.” Finding her own cardboard box, she says, “Let’s see if any of mine survived.” If she has one perfect rose, she’s decided, she’ll enter it in the judges’ horticulture class.

A bellhop lifts her box onto a luggage carrier and wheels it to her room. Jones turns to the duct-taped package, stabbing at it with her shears and a Swiss Army knife before finally slicing it open. After pulling out the blue ice packs one by one, she raises the Lucite covering and picks up the Nicoles. The blooms are slightly smashed but still full of petals, and she places the stems in cold water in a hotel ice bucket.

She reaches deep into the box and lifts the Styrofoam base with the rest of her roses. As the blooms rise, an immense shower of petals—light pink, magenta, white, red, yellow—falls to the floor. Jones’s face sinks too when she sees the mangled stems and blooms that remain. Then she shrugs. “As the French say, ‘C’est bien dommage.’”

From the Styrofoam she pulls a test tube holding a short stem with a dented but full peach and yellow bloom. “This Polka might be all right,” she says, removing the test tube and placing the stem in a Sheraton coffee mug filled with ice water. Four or five more Polkas join the first. A few white Crystalline also are salvaged, along with some white Pillow Fight, a filler shrub. But as she pops most of the test tubes from the base, more petals fall. There is no perfect rose, and there are too few to complete the ten arrangements.

“I shouldn’t have tried to fit so many in the box,” Jones says. “And I really shouldn’t have put the Nicoles on top. Oh well, live and learn.” She reaches to the floor and grabs two large handfuls of petals, which would look lovely scattered on a wedding aisle but do her little good now. She brushes the petals to her face and kisses them. “I love the way they feel,” she says, “like a baby’s skin.”

After tossing the petals into the garbage, the mourning is over. Jones places an 11 p.m. room-to-room phone call to Lynn Snetsinger, an exhibitor friend. “Oh, you need shears?” Jones says into the receiver. “Well, I’ll make you a trade. Do you have any roses I can use?”

By the time Jones finishes snaking roses from sympathizers, brushing the petals with panty hose to bring out their natural sheen, and fitting the flowers into seven arrangements, it’s 7:35 Saturday morning. The only blooms of her own to survive the night are the Nicoles for the stretch design and a Crystalline, a Pillow Fight, and a miniature, the three of which she fits into the sake container on her breakfast tray.

She changes into her black judging skirt at 8 and by 8:30 is at breakfast. At 9 the judging begins. She joins her team of two other judges and two clerks, who will put ribbons on winning roses and pluck the top performers for the next round. She and her team tour the contestant tables, silently jot their favorites on a piece of paper, and hand them to the judge chair. Their picks join the other teams,’ and the process continues until they’ve whittled down a winner in each category. By 1 p.m. it’s over.

Although Jones’s arrangements win some second-place, third-place, and honorable-mention ribbons, she considers her performance a continuation of her losing streak, which stings a bit harder because it’s a national show. Strolling around the trophy table she sees that Lynn Snetsinger has won a half-dozen trophies—as has another exhibitor whom Jones and other participants gossip about as a show-off.

Returning to her arrangements, she reads the judges’ comments, which frustrate her. On “Voodoo,” which won third prize: “Color combination of red and black incorporated theme!” But “base overpowers design.” Well, she notes, Lew Schute had helped create the base. On “Throw Me Something Mister,” which received no prize: “Didn’t conform to requirement of stretch design.” She has no idea why not.

Later, when she’s had time not to sleep but at least to order a bowl of chicken soup in the hotel lounge, she considers the psychology of her loss. “Whenever someone isn’t realizing their dreams it’s because they’re holding onto some old negative thought they’re afraid of,” she says. Perhaps, Jones conjectures, if she won as many trophies as the gossiped-about winner, she’s afraid that people would dislike her too.

After the soup, Jones heads back to her room to dress for the “Come as a Rose” costume banquet. She reemerges smiling behind a red glitter mask and red, white, and blue top hat and vest. She waves a wand of silver foil stars. “I’m Stars and Stripes!” she says, a miniature rose variety. An elderly man wears his old Army uniform, dressed as the rose called Veteran’s Honor. A couple wearing pajamas hit each other with small white pillows—they’re Pillow Fight. A man in boxer shorts, a white robe, and boxing gloves is a Knockout rose. With varieties like Tropicana, Swamp, Tiger Tail, Fairy, Baby Blanket, Chili Pepper, Butterfly Kisses, Black Magic, Carrot Top, and Pink Poodle, the revelers may as well be at a Halloween party.

At 10 p.m. Jones retreats to her room for a bath and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow there are more seminars and an awards dinner, and Monday she’ll head to Shreveport to tour the American Rose Center’s gardens. On Tuesday she’ll fly home, tend her bushes, and prepare for the rest of the six-week spring showing season. For the fall national show in Washington, D.C., and next year’s spring national show in San Diego, she says, she’ll ship her roses UPS rather than bring them on the plane. And she won’t toss extras on top.

 

 


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