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Sean Kirst: Delaware Park roses exploding as 'a symbol of summer, of life and joy'

Sean Kirst: Delaware Park roses exploding as 'a symbol of summer, of life and joy'

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Elaine Bell, finally back among the roses, was in no hurry. It had been two years since she saw the Delaware Park Rose Garden in full blossom, and about that long since she had last walked the park without a mask.

She strolled Thursday from bed to bed, protected from the sun by the same floppy hat she wears in her own garden. She was pleased to see how the roses at the park exploded this year, growing with the same kind of brilliant urgency as the seven or eight rose bushes she tends at home.

On a cool and sunny morning, Bell savored what Andrew Dickerson, who basically serves as head gardener for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, calls “a place of solace.”

Bell Delaware Park Rose Garden

Thursday marked Elaine Bell's first journey to the rose garden since 2019.

Like so many others in Buffalo, as spring shifted into summer, that refuge was exactly what they needed.

Bell, who turns 70 this month, is a retired nurse. She learned to love roses as a child, admiring the pink ones brought to full glory each spring by her mother, who brought her skills as a gardener with her when she moved to Buffalo from Mississippi.

The family lived on Landon Street, where Elaine was one of five siblings. A little more than a year ago, a younger brother, Kenneth Bryant, died at 65 in a nursing home from complications tied to Covid-19, family heartbreak during a strange 2020 spring in which Bell said her rose bushes hardly bloomed.

"This year," she said quietly, "they've grown bigger than I've seen them in ages."

The landscape of color at the park “is so relaxing, so joyful,” she said. She pointed out her favorite rose, whose translucent hue matched its name of “hot cocoa,” then stood for a moment to study the brilliant flowers surrounding her – roses carrying such names as "Cherry Parfait" or "Starry Night."

“You see this and you say: OK,” said Bell, offering that last word with the sound of both an answer and a prayer after 16 months of loss and solitude.

She was one of many visitors who wandered through the garden that morning with a kind of reverence, including Adrienne Thompson and Cheryl Slisz, friends since they were children on the the city’s West Side. Like Bell, Slisz said the roses at her house surged into bloom this spring in a way she has not seen in years, a blizzard of color she describes as “Covid growth.”

Garcia Delaware Park Rose Garden

David Garcia, a member of a team from People Inc.'s Young Adult Life Transitions program, weeds Thursday at Delaware Park.

“They’re blooming like it feels all of Buffalo is blooming,” said Thompson, taking that feeling not only from the roses in the garden but from a group of young children whose jubilant voices carried across the park from a nearby playground, while their parents stood back, content, to let the kids blow off a whole lot of collected steam.

Dickerson, whose official title with Olmsted is system-side specialty gardener, agreed with Thompson's observations about the strength of this year's bloom. “This has been a wonderful year for roses,” he said, a result he linked to a warm, dry spring. He estimated there are 60 to 65 varieties of “climbers and ramblers and hybrids and shrub roses” at Delaware, and his big dream for the future is bringing in more “old-fashioneds” of enough fragrance to attract more butterflies and bees and to deliver a rich blanket of aroma.

Rose Delaware Park Rose Garden

Roses in bloom at the Delaware Park Rose Garden.

He also seconded a point made by Zach Garland, the Olmsted community outreach manager, who said much of the credit for the beauty at the garden is due to the legion of volunteers who selflessly care for the roses from the cold days of early spring through a second blossoming, just before the fall.

Thursday, Garland was there to check in with Jeffrey Coyle and his team from the People Inc. Young Adult Life Transitions Program, or YALT, at the University at Buffalo. That effort provides community-based skills training for young women and men of college age, born with developmental disabilities.

The rose garden has special meaning to that group, Coyle said. Last summer, when the world was essentially locked down, the YALT team found a welcome escape in volunteering at the park. One of the major projects was pulling overgrowth and weeds from an old park entrance that until then was essentially hidden near Forest Avenue, though Coyle and his team also spent many hours on hands on knees at the garden, yanking weeds from beds of roses.

JOHNSON Rose Garden Hickey

Roses are in bloom at the Delaware Park Rose Garden with help from Zeyneb Johnson, part of a crew from People Inc.'s Young Adult Life Transitions Program.

In that way, team members David Garcia, Steryianie Papaefthimiou and Zeyneb Johnson all played a significant role in setting the stage for this year’s theater of color.

Papaefthimiou recalled that as soon as the team returned to work last summer after months of being shut down, she brought up the rose garden and “asked Jeff when we were going to come back.”

Olivia Rondon, one of the Olmsted seasonal workers helping in the garden, said the roses have an almost mystically soothing impact on visitors. Rondon moved back to this area a couple of years ago. Before that, she had a variety of jobs – including working as a server in restaurants – and she grew accustomed to people who were ill-tempered and rude, for no reason.

In the rose garden, it is not only roses that seem to flower.

“It’s such a beautiful way to reconnect to Buffalo,” Rondon said, “because I’ve never had so many people be nice to me.”

Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy Delaware Park Rose Garden

Olivia Rondon, a seasonal worker with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, speaks with Andrew Dickerson Thursday at the Delaware Park Rose Garden.

Visitor after visitor also kept making the same point: The surge of beauty in the rose garden mirrors with happened this year with roses or rhododendrons or other flowers at their own homes. Dickerson noted many people have been showing up at the garden for June rituals of wedding or graduation photos, and he has observed a kind of aching, keen emotion on a level never evident before: At least twice, casual visitors burst into tears as they spoke to him about the roses, a response he interprets as both gratitude and release.

Kayla Heaps, who first fell in love with the garden while walking it as a child with her grandparents,  followed behind her 1-year-old daughter Violet, allowing her to take her time with admiring any rose along the trail. Mona Ciszek and her 10-month-old puppy Arthur stopped short on a walk, locked in on all the color, simply looking out for a long time across the beds.

“So beautiful,” Ciszek said. “Absolutely stunning.”

As she spoke, a few petals blew by in the wind. Dickerson, the head gardener, said many of the roses are already past their peak, and he suggests – if you want to catch a glimpse before a collective fadeaway – that you stop by as soon as you can.

Elaine Bell, the nurse who lost a brother to the virus, described the blossoms as “a symbol of summer, of life and joy.” She folded her arms and stood there for a long time, taking it all in. After so many long months, she had beauty on all sides – brilliant roses, blue skies, the sound of children laughing – and she was in no rush to turn away.  

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com.

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