Balboa Park in Bloom: Stop and Smell the Roses

Balboa Park is home to an award-winning rose garden, free and open to the public year-round.

The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden is situated on the eastern edge of Balboa Park’s Central Mesa, along Park Boulevard. It was built in segments, beginning in 1973, and has been recognized multiple times for its beauty.

  • Nationally honored as the outstanding rose garden by All-America Rose Selections in 1978.
  • Given the “Award of Garden Excellence” by the World Federation of Rose Societies in 2003.
  • Inducted into the Great Rosarians of the World (GROW) Hall of Fame in 2014 [1].

You don’t have to be a rose expert to recognize that these are top awards. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden is a national champion, world champion, and hall of famer all in one.

If the Rose Garden were a San Diego sports team, the line to see it would be… oh, wait, never mind. It’s a cruel joke to compare any San Diego athletic franchise to a national or world champion.

Anyway, the garden has received international acclaim. And it’s just sitting there, inviting you to stop.


Take a moment.

And remember to smell the next rose you see.

And those are just the pictures I could get without crossing the police tape. Just imagine what you’ll see when you visit.


A Little History

Balboa Park as we know it started taking shape in the 1890s and early 1900s with the work of Kate Sessions and George Marston. Despite the Park’s ample space, none of its rose gardens “stuck” and by the 1960s a new one was just a dream. This lack was pronounced in a place like San Diego, with its wonderful climate for growing just about anything.

Dick Streeper, former president of the San Diego Rose Society, wrote about this specific irony in late 1975.

Most rose growers in San Diego believe that this is the most favored place in America for the growing of the world’s most favored plant – the rose. We have an even and temperate climate which produces an abundance of growth… problems of other areas such as blackspot and Japanese beetle are little known here. We have a large and active rose society which stages the West’s largest rose show each year. Considering these facts, it seems surprising that San Diego has not had a major public rose garden [2].

The absence of a rose garden was even more odd since [Southern California] hybridizers had recently produced new varieties with more vigor, disease-resistance, beautiful foliage, and graceful flower buds [3].

Streeper ran into obstacles from the beginning.

I proposed we launch an effort for a municipal rose garden at my first board meeting, and everyone told me that it had been tried and wouldn’t work. January of the following year, I became the Rose Society president, and at the first meeting the membership adopted a resolution supporting the establishment of a municipal rose garden [4].

Thankfully for us, Streeper, and fellow rosarians Jean Kenneally and Jim Kirk, received the support of Jim Milch, then chairman of the Park and Recreation Board, and Vince Marchetti, project officer for Park and Recreation.

According to Streeper, Milch was responsible for helping match the rose garden project with a donor.

[He] told me the Parker Foundation was interested in paying for the replanting of the palm trees on 6th Avenue, and he could help redirect that to roses. We had a meeting and they agreed to supply matching funds [5].

Funding was provided by The Parker Foundation, which donated “a major amount of money to establish a rose garden”, according to an article written by Streeper for California Garden magazine [6].

And the Parker Foundation brings us to Inez Grant Parker. If you’re like me, you wonder who she was and if she was a special lover of roses.

She and her husband, Gerald T. Parker, were philanthropists from the Midwest. She was born in Oswego, Kansas on June 26, 1887. As the daughter of a prominent horse dealer, she became a proficient horsewoman and accomplished driver. Later, she founded the Friends of the Nelson Art Museum.

Mr. Parker worked in finance and was the vice president at the Commerce Trust Company in Kansas City.

The two eventually moved to San Diego. I don’t yet know why they chose San Diego, but to me the choice shows good judgment. Nothing against Kansas City, but if you prefer being outdoors looking at roses year-round, wouldn’t you rather be in San Diego? Have you tried to be outdoors in Kansas City in February or August? If you live there, you spend the entire year looking forward to April and October.

So why not move to San Diego and do some good? The Parkers supported the Boy Scouts, San Diego Museum of Art and Northwest Family YMCA.



Speaking of good in San Diego, be sure to check out Balboa Park in Bloom, my monthly post on flowering trees from around the world in the heart of San Diego:

Also be sure to check out a tribute to Kate Sessions, the Mother of Balboa Park:

Finally, read this exclusive post about an eighty-year-old tour of Balboa Park and its eccentric author:

Now, back to the show…


In 1971 Mrs. Parker established the Parker Foundation. When she passed away a year later, her remaining estate was transferred to the Foundation “to institutionalize [the Parkers’] devotion to the community in perpetuity” [7].

That last part is a fancy way of saying, “Yeah, this is a bucket load of stuff that’s worth a lot of money, so now the smart people running the Foundation are going to do good for the rest of time.”

And all that value went to the Foundation in 1972. Well, wouldn’t you know it. That was the same time Dick Streeper and the San Diego Rose Society were working with San Diego Parks and Rec to finalize plans for a rose garden in Balboa Park.


One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed writing this story is the reminder that beautiful parks and gardens don’t just come out of nowhere. They’re not just sitting there waiting for three benches and a gazebo.

That part is easy for me to forget since nature does the heavy lifting. Provides oxygen, sunlight, water, symbiotic relationships, etc.

But to work with nature so that people can enjoy a qualitatively new experience takes vision. Having vision takes a combination of talent, skill, inspiration and a lot of previous perspiration.

And this was a very public vision.

Led by Dick Streeper, rosarians (I love that word) at the San Diego Rose Society pursued a vision that could be visited by millions of people every year.

Can you imagine putting together something that stunning? I’m glad if something I envision in my small backyard garden provides mild enjoyment for the five people a year who see it.

Streeper was involved in every facet of the planning and had to be flexible, patient, and able to muster others’ best efforts and resources.

It took us another four years because at that point we didn’t have a master plan. Also, the eastern portion of the rose garden was built mostly on landfill from the high rise buildings from downtown San Diego, which had to settle for a couple of years before anything could be planted. The Rose Society and rose industry, under my direction, have since donated and supplied virtually all of the roses [8].

And just getting approval for the garden took planning and effort. Required going to those boooooring meetings. The ones where you can’t wait for them to end and get enraged at that audience member who KEEPS asking questions.

Sure, going to one meeting and spouting a few ideas is one thing. Lots of people do that. Just read Nextdoor or Facebook to see how easy it is for people to show up with the sole intention of yapping their own opinions and not hear a word anyone else said (or wrote).

It’s entirely another to pursue a vision, in collaboration with others, for years. That takes a commitment beyond how you feel, and sometimes takes precedence over much more fun and entertaining “stuff”. And is always at risk of failure. That’s the part every committed person in those meetings knows but will not give voice to until it’s really over.

And once they get beyond all that, enacting this vision takes difficult and awkward conversations between real people.

Imagine being Jim Milch or Dick Streeper, who met with the Parker Foundation to ask for a donation. Yes, you were passionate about the project and knew your natural charm and enthusiasm would go a long way. Which is why you were there in the first place.

But you also knew that people and their money were a tight bond. Success would take your blend of leading the dance and letting yourself be led. Your light feet and firm hand. That’s what you told yourself before you felt that giant avocado pit land in your stomach.

Now imagine being the person at the Parker Foundation who heard “the pitch.” How many times had you already say, “No” to pitches that morning?

I think it’s a rough morning when I have to walk through downtown and tell three beggars I don’t have change. What was the morning like for you at the Foundation? How many solicitations had you already denied?

I get harassed for years if I make a small charitable donation just once. What was it like being the person, or people, responsible for the kind of money that could single-handedly float a worthy venture for decades?

Thankfully for us now, those conversations went well. The Parker Foundation, San Diego Rose Society, City of San Diego and others collaborated to make the garden a reality.

The plaque commemorating the dedication of the rose garden in 1975 lists the following organizations which were involved in bringing the garden to fruition: The Parker Foundation, Armstrong Nurseries Inc., Jackson & Perkins Co., San Joaquin Rose Co., San Diego Rose Society, Howard Rose Co., Weeks Wholesale Rose Grower and Boise Cascade Corp [9].

But the story doesn’t end there. The garden is kept up every Tuesday and Thursday by 45 volunteers from the Rose Garden Corps.

[T]he Rose Garden Corps… supplies most of the horticultural labor in the garden, or the daily upkeep and planting.

[P]eople spend at least a morning two times a month, but many come in more often. Just about two hours or so, planting roses and pruning. The Corps is the backbone because they are experienced and know how to care for roses [10].

Enjoy their handiwork.

So next Tuesday and Thursday, wherever you find yourself, you can stop, look around with fresh eyes, smell the roses (literally or figuratively), and pause in silent gratitude for all the anonymous people who helped create that experience.


Thanks for reading and stay tuned!


Check out the city of San Diego’s website for a few quality photos:

Get a detailed history from the San Diego Rose Society:

And learn more about the Parkers:



  2. Richard Streeper, San Diego’s Rose Garden, California Garden, Vol. 67, No. 1, January-February 1976, p. 9.
  3. Marianne Truby, Balboa Park Rose Garden, California Garden, Vol. 85, No. 1, January-February 1994, p.9.
  4. Sarah Smith, Garden Conversations: Dick Streeper, California Garden, Vol. 101, No.1, January-February 2010, p.23.
  5. Sarah Smith, Garden Conversations: Dick Streeper, p.23.
  6. Richard Streeper, San Diego’s Rose Garden, p. 9.
  8. Sarah Smith, Garden Conversations: Dick Streeper, p.23.
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.

3 thoughts on “Balboa Park in Bloom: Stop and Smell the Roses

  1. How can one volunteer to help with upkeep of the rose garden. So many of the bushes need “dead-heading”.


    1. I don’t know the details of becoming a volunteer. I’m just an admirer of the garden. I’d recommend you reach out to the Rose Garden Corps or San Diego Rose Society.


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