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A rose by any other name

While preparing for a literary conference in 2015, Keith Huneycutt, an English professor at Florida Southern College, learned that the late novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had two secret ambitions.

According to a 1990 Rawlings biography written by Elizabeth Silverthorne, Rawlings dreamed of winning a Nobel Prize in literature. The writer, who died in 1953 when she was 57, also had wanted a new variety of rose named after her.

Rawlings, whose former homestead in Cross Creek is now a state park, never realized those ambitions. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Yearling,” about a boy and his deer growing up in backwoods Florida, but never received a Nobel. And there was no Rawlings rose.

Huneycutt couldn’t do anything about the Nobel, but he thought he might be able to do something about the rose.

He got in touch with Malcolm Manners, a Florida Southern citrus and horticultural science professor, and asked for his help. It turned out that Manners, one of Florida’s top experts on roses, had been working on hybridizing a new, vibrant red variety in the antique-rose style that could have conceivably been grown in Florida when Rawlings lived in Cross Creek. With approval from Rawlings’ descendants, Manners applied to the American Rose Society to officially name the rose after Rawlings.

Today, three Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings rose bushes grow by the entrance gate to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, south of Gainesville.

“She loved beauty,” Huneycutt says. “And she loved roses. To know there is a new rose named after her growing at the gate to her little farm, I think she would be so tickled.”

The young bushes are still getting established but have already bloomed. The Rawlings rose is not the showy sort on display in a florist’s shop. Rather, each bloom has one row of eight or 10 red petals and looks a bit like a large apple blossom. Its scent, though, is sweet and unmistakably rose. Manners hybridized it to tolerate Florida’s heat and humidity, says Art Wade, who propagates and sells antique-style roses, including the Rawlings variety, at his Rose Petals Nursery in nearby Newberry.

“Older roses are hardier,” Wade says. “This one repeat-blooms, has a nice fragrance and is disease-resistant. You won’t need to coddle this one.”

The biggest challenges so far have been deer, which have eaten some of the blooms, and the occasional rose-swiping tourist.

Rawlings, who moved to Cross Creek from New York in 1928, set many of her most notable novels in Florida, including “Golden Apples” (1935), “The Yearling” (1938) and “Cross Creek” (1942). She did much of her writing at her Cross Creek home, where visitors can now tour the house and farm and see where she wrote, cooked and slept. Her garden continues to produce — corn, oranges and her beloved roses, particularly the antique Louis Philippe variety that was around during Rawlings’ days.

Carrie Todd, the park ranger at the Rawlings house, says the park aims to maintain everything at the homestead as it was in the 1930s, when Rawlings spent her most productive years there. That’s the only reason the rose named after her was planted outside the gate rather than inside, she says.

Todd says the bushes were planted where every visitor would see them, however.

“This rose really reminds us that Marjorie Rawlings isn’t history only, but she remains part of the culture in north Florida,” Todd says. “People are still thinking about her. I think that the main lesson to learn from this is to remember that what we think of as being in the past always affects the present. It’s a reminder that we are constantly interacting with our own heritage.”