Stop and Smell the Roses in This Glorious Public Garden

Created at the end of World War II, Arlington's Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden is a feast for the senses.
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Sai and Wendy Chow with daughter Lena, 2, at the Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden in Arlington, Virginia (Photo by Matt Mendelsohn)

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare famously asked. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

That may be true, but in Bon Air Park, Arlington’s unofficial rose sanctuary, it’s actually all about the names—more than 120 of them and counting. Whether you know your Dick Clark from your Galway Bay or your Viking Queen from your Crimson Glory, a stroll through the garden’s 24 acres and 1,200 rosebushes is a trip through Arlington history, as well as the evolution of rose fancy in America.

Nestled off Wilson Boulevard between Bluemont and Dominion Hills, the Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden has long been a draw for bees, butterflies and picnicking families, though its current home was not its first. The flowers originally took root near Arlington Hospital (now VHC Health) at the end of World War II and the beginning of the county’s postwar growth spurt.

Wars and building booms operate on grand scales, but the notion of commemorating Arlington’s fallen soldiers with a rose garden was the brainchild of a single individual—Nellie Broyhill, who moved to Arlington in 1937 with her husband, Marvin. (His real estate company would go on to develop large swaths of the county.) As the war was coming to a close in 1944, the mother of five had an idea that would merge her love of gardening with a living memorial. 

“My grandmother was the rose queen. She was a force of nature,” says Nellie’s granddaughter, Jeanne Broyhill. “She created the Potomac Women’s Club. She was a founder of the Memorial Baptist Church on Glebe Road. If she had been born a decade or two later, she would have been a very prominent woman.” The rose garden opened in 1951 and was transplanted 13 years later to its current spot.

Jeanne’s childhood memories of the garden mostly revolve around bugs. “I would go with my grandfather and we would spend the day picking beetles off the rosebushes,” she says, laughing. 

Now 72, she thinks about her grandmother’s rose garden with the wistfulness of years. “It takes your breath away. To realize that the legacy of your family goes on and on.”

The blooming spectacle is also a horticultural time capsule of sorts. “The park gives people the opportunity to experience the roses of yesteryear,” says Pam Powers, longtime president of the Arlington Rose Foundation, which contributed rosebushes to the garden over decades. “The roses that were donated each year represent the best in the country for those years.  

“Everyone has their favorites,” Powers adds. “A lot of people look for fragrance. That might be your Pope John Paul II, a rose that is [pure] white. But then there are the purples. Almost 98% of the purple roses are fragrant. They’ve been optimized over time.”

Olfactory delights aside, the flowers are dazzling to behold from May to October.

Veterans’ Honor—there’s a real rose,” Powers says. “It’s spiraled, pointed tip, and with a heavy petal count at the perfect point of opening. Just beautiful.”

What would Nellie Broyhill, who passed away in 1977, think of the legacy she created—a botanical wonderland that is still celebrated today in quinceañera, prom and wedding photos? No doubt she’d be tickled pink. Or red, yellow or purple…

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