Last week in the rose garden…

by longtallyarn

When I decided to plant a few roses I started by doing the research.  You know, the best thing about doing something new is the research.  The internet is great– I really like the gardenweb forums where I can look in the very active Carolina Gardening forum and several rose forums, and see which plants struggle and which are easy.  Our library system also has a good nonfiction dept.  I read a couple books about roses and I tried to pick out a few varieties that would combine beauty with scent and also be easy care.

I started to ask my spouse if he and the boys would like to tour a rose garden with me. Then I recovered my senses and asked whether he would mind me taking a day trip without him to see the Wilson Rose Garden.  As soon as he realized he was off the hook for looking at flowers half the day he was supportive and enthusiastic.  I have a coworker who likes gardening and is pleasant company, and she agreed to go with me.  We made our plans back in the winter to go in May when everything would be in bloom.

Located at 1800 Herring Avenue, Wilson, NC, the Garden looks small on google maps but it has a lot of roses.  It is about an hour from my home.

The main attraction for me was the Old Garden Roses section. I feel intrigued by these historic flowers, many of them come in soft colors and have famously lovely scents. Also there is the mystical idea that some of them are so ancient they could be clones of a flower that bloomed during the time of the Roman Empire, Christopher Columbus, William Shakespeare, etc.  These old roses have survived the decades or centuries because they are tough.  However, I am learning that location is everything.  A rose like the Damask from the Midde East might prefer drier climates than the Southeast(ern U.S.); a rose like the Gallica from France might prefer cooler weather than we can offer here.  So I was hoping to see how these beauties were coping with eastern NC.


In the Old Garden section there were several empty beds, some had labels in them for roses I had hoped to see.  Either they had been overcome by the shade on that side of the garden or by the climate extremes we have around here.  The example of the Damasks (Ispahan) had already bloomed for the year by the time we visited in late May.  I saw no Gallicas.

I enjoyed seeing the Peace rose, a modern classic popular from the time it was introduced at the end of WWII.  I have read about this one but never seen one outside of photographs.  The rose books do not exaggerate it’s loveliness.

My friend gravitated toward the more modern roses.  There were some brilliantly colored roses with yellow in the center, progressing out toward coral, orange, and red shades.  These were her favorites.  She also liked Mutabilis, a china rose on which the flowers change color as they age.

We saw a rose with small, purplish, fragrant flowers that we both liked because of the scent.  That bed was perfuming the whole garden.  I wrote the name “DayDream” in my notebook but none of the websites advertising the DayDream rose indicate that it is highly fragrant so maybe I misread the tag.

We both really liked the Rugosa roses.  They had beautiful folliage, some nice flowers, and lots of cute little rose hips forming.


When we had seen enough roses, we sat in the shade on the garden wall and chatted about our husbands and our careers and what our kids are up to.  It was a sunny morning with a  cool breeze scented by the roses.  For me that was a big highlight of our trip, beautiful surroundings, good fellowship, and the peace and quiet to relax and enjoy.

As noon approached we went to a Jamaican restaurant for lunch and decided to look for the Whirligig museum before we went home.

The whirligigs turned out to be the most interesting part of our trip to Wilson.  Wilson is an example of a town that once housed a prominent industry, in this case tobacco, that has moved on.  NC has a lot of towns like this that formerly housed industries like textiles, furniture, tobacco, etc.

Wilson is remaking itself into a destination town.  It has fast internet, lots of free parking, an Amtrak stop, and several tourist attractions besides the rose garden 🙂  Our tour guide told us that the whirligig museum will, when finished, be the largest free theme park on the east coast.  [Maybe he said the U.S. or the world.  I can’t remember but I’m trying to be conservative with my quote.]

Wilson was the hometown of Vollis Simpson, a creator of whirligigs.  You can read what a professional writer said about him in  NY Times “Junkyard Poet of Whirligigs and Windmills”.

Our tour guide said after Mr. Simpson’s retirement his wife asked him to tidy up his shop.  Instead of hauling away the odds and ends, he began to make whirligigs.  Mrs. Simpson, I know what it’s like…

Some whirligigs are large, some are small, they generally have a wheel that spins in the wind and powers a little man chopping wood or riding a bicycle or playing a guitar.  They are brightly colored and some have a lot of reflectors on them.  A large whirligig is featured at the NC Museum of Art.  We actually saw this one in the repair shop while we were there.  Mr. Simpson’s whirligigs were featured at the 1996 Olympics in Georgia and internationally.  He also had a pasture filled with whirligigs on his farm.

In Wilson, we walked down the street toward what we thought was the whirligig park. It looked disappointing– a run-down-looking paved area with a shop.  We wandered in and found that it was the museum-like refurbishment area for the Whirligigs that would be placed in the park.  Inside the shop was the work area and also some exhibits.  It was neat seeing them up close and in pieces like that.

A few things I learned

  • The reflectors used by Mr. Simpson were mostly cut from Dept. of Highways signs.  He sourced them from a prison where they were manufactured.  Part of the restoration process is to duplicate the exact lettering on the pieces of reflectors.  However, out of spec DOH signs are now contracted to one recycler and the restoration workers must duplicate their own sign pieces.  Our tour guide says this is probably easier anyway, since the fragments are so small it would be difficult to index the leftovers if they were cut from existing signs.

Part of a whirligig at the repair shop.  Note the reflectors.

  • Mr. Simpson used whatever paints he had on hand and did not take care to make the finishes weather resistant.  Now they are being sanded down and painted with a 30-year-grade, archival type paint for metals.
  • Mr. Simpson used whatever materials he could get from junk-yard establishments.  For example, one structure uses wind-catchers made from a bunch of metal wine-glasses with the stems cut off.
  • Some of the old whirligig parts will not be restored, they will be dismantled and the rusty, historic-effect pieces will be used for indoor museum exhibition.  Duplicates have been cut out to replace them on the refurbished whirligig.

Old Guitar man for the indoor museum and new guitar man for the park.

The park site is down the road from the shop and our guide walked down with us to see it.  There are plans for seating and informational kiosks, sidewalks, and food vendors.  Across the street will be a microbrewery.  In NC we have a microbrewery across the street from everything.

Eventually, Mrs. Simpson came out ahead as Mr. Simpson was able to sell some whirligigs to collectors and institutions, nationally and internationally.  I don’t know if he ever cleaned up his shop, but Mr. Simpson, in his 90’s, was able to sell his own whirligig collection, out in the pasture, to the town of Wilson for a tidy sum.  The town was told, by the appraiser, that they got a bargain.  Mr. Simpson knew that his creations would be restored and cared for.


Several refurbished whirligigs have already been installed in the unfinished park.

My friend and I left Wilson in time to get home about the time we would be getting home from work.  It was a nice break from my daily routine and I really enjoyed my day off.  If you decide to visit Wilson someday, stop by Raleigh and see me!