The monumental rose debacle

The generosity of spirit from Heritage Roses Otago convener Fran Rawling is impressive. Despite the debacle of the decimation of the heritage roses in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery, she is looking to the future and finding something positive to say.

At the same time, she reports the further bad news that it is becoming apparent more roses are affected than initially thought.  About 500 roses (out of 1200) were showing signs of damage.  Despite some regrowth,  she believes most would have to be ripped out along with any contaminated soil. 

The regrowth looked unhealthy, as though the cut-back plants were still being stunted by the mystery substance. Mrs Rawling said her group had had a "positive" meeting with the Dunedin City Council this week and a strategy to replace the damaged roses was settled on. 

The council would support efforts to track down rare rose varieties across New Zealand.  The initial focus would be on replacing the up to 100 memorial roses and the rarest ones.

Heritage Roses members, and the public of Dunedin, nonetheless, have every reason to continue to be upset and even angry about what has happened, and  about the lack of accountability.

Remember it was volunteer enthusiasts who, from 2000, transformed the cemetery  as a millennium gift to the city.  They grew on what was already there, so much so that the rose collection has been recognised as "internationally significant". 

They raised large amounts of money and gave untold hours of voluntary labour to create and maintain what flowered into something really special.

Clearly, a monumental blunder took place, and the council’s cemetery contractor Delta is under scrutiny.

All the circumstantial evidence points to its role, for how could a common or garden vandal have the motivation and means to spread such destruction?Yet, obfuscation and red herrings  seem to be the order of the day, so far at least.

Delta has, for example, said the first test results show the presence of the chemical picloram, which Delta does not use on this site. It is not an ingredient in glyposate (Roundup) which is used. There are claims Delta’s cemeteries staff are highly experienced and qualified, but records show the rose plots are no-spray hand-weeding only areas.

Delta’s records show it did spray in the cemetery in October, and in good conditions.  The die-off of the roses matches spraying at that time.

How frustrating, too, have been the delays over testing results for soil and foliage.  First they were due before Christmas.  Then, apart from the preliminary picloram finding, this month.  Now the date is mid-February.  The Christmas break and complexities involved are blamed.

As another Heritage Roses Otago committee member has said,  it was up to Delta as the contractor responsible for spraying to prove it was not responsible for the damage.  Surely, there would be evidence and direct suspicions if anyone else had been spraying in the cemetery on this scale.

It is encouraging the Dunedin City Council has put its hand up to help Heritage Roses in the long and slow recovery of this treasure.  But, of course, that means the ratepayers and citizens of Dunedin are paying towards what was a wonderful free gift to the city.  And should Delta be found responsible and be liable for compensatory costs, it is the city which suffers again because  it is a council-owned company.

Like Mrs Rawling, we can also look for positives here and there from the wreckage of this botanical disaster.

At the very least, awareness of the collection and its value have sprouted.

While this newspaper over the years has run features and reports about  the rose collection, it is the bad news of  the dead and dying roses which makes prominent news and which impacts on the consciousness of many people.

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