Rosarian John Cook cultivated world-renowned blooms from his West Baltimore greenhouse

The John Cook family gravesite is located in Section V-119 in New Cathedral Cemetery. The angel’s broken left wing lies on the ground next to the statue.

The John Cook family gravesite is located in Section V-119 in New Cathedral Cemetery. The angel’s broken left wing lies on the ground next to the statue.

Photographed in the Nieuwesteeg Heritage Rose Garden, Maddingley Park, Bacchus Marsh, Victoria  By Eric Timewell - own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Photographed in the Nieuwesteeg Heritage Rose Garden, Maddingley Park, Bacchus Marsh, Victoria
By Eric Timewell - own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

John Cook, a west Baltimore florist, gardener and family man, was celebrated in 19th-century horticultural circles around the world.

During 50 years of breeding roses at Breisgau, his home and greenhouse located just off Edmondson Avenue, he painstakingly cultivated about 25 new hybrids. His name remains on nearby Cooks Lane. His most famous creation was Radiance, a pink tea rose with a silver lining on the petals. 

A native of Germany once known as Johann Koch, Cook named some of his rose creations after his adopted hometown: Pearl of Baltimore, Preakness, Francis Scott Key, Mrs. Robert Garrett and My Maryland. 

As a young man, Cook came into the florist trade in Germany as an apprentice. In those days, this meant he paid to work and learn. To avoid required military service, a 20-year-old Cook emigrated to New York, where he continued to hone his skills and learn English. 

Cook’s career turned when John Howard McHenry hired him as a gardener on his estate, in the current location of the Sudbrook Park neighborhood in Pikesville. 

Gardening experts were in demand in Baltimore during those years, as wealthy families built “country” estates on elevated tracts of land just beyond Baltimore city to escape summer heat. 

After 10 years in Pikesville, Cook came to work in west Baltimore at Uplands, which was shortly purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Garrett. 

Growing rose seedlings is a very slow business. It takes five months to ripen the seed pod, a month to rot the hip and from five to twelve months for the seed to come up. These seedlings are very much subject to mildew, and some die in their infancy. Fifty percent of the seeds will not germinate . . . and out of the remaining you might obtain two or three varieties worth growing.
— John Cook, Growing Rose Seedlings; Gardeners' Chronicle of America, 19(5): 226 (May 1915)

His reputation, skills and wealth continued to evolve enough so that he struck out on his own, purchasing a florist business on Charles Street and a home for his growing family. He had married Elizabeth D. Pfieffer from Howard County and the couple would go on to have nine children. 

American Florist 29: 818 (Nov. 9, 1908)

American Florist 29: 818 (Nov. 9, 1908)

Most importantly, he filled the greenhouse on his property with experimental hybrids. Roses were his passion, though he also dabbled in various species of carnations, chrysanthemums and strawberries. 

His reputation grew. At the end of his life, Breisgau was said to be filled with horticultural medals, trophies, vases and proclamations from around the world. Yet, Cook was also known as a humble man who generously shared his knowledge with home gardeners, rose hobbyists and even competitors. He worked well into his 90s and continued to delight in new discoveries.  

He also stayed loyal to his adopted city and state. At one point, a New York distributor wanted to change the name of My Maryland, one of his rose creations. He refused: “The rose has been called My Maryland after my state and My Maryland it shall remain, whether I receive money for it or not.” 

Mr. Cook died on October 9, 1929. His funeral took place at St. William of York Church, which was located across the street from his home. He is buried in New Cathedral Cemetery.

A memorial to a celebrated rosarian is at  Rawlings Conservatory & Botanical Gardens .   The sculpture beyond is a sundial created in 1890 by Peter Hamilton, a local stonemason with guidance from the Johns Hopkins mathematics department. It tells the time for numerous places on earth but is now often inaccurate since the introduction of daylight savings time. Photo by John Santora

A memorial to a celebrated rosarian is at Rawlings Conservatory & Botanical Gardens.

The sculpture beyond is a sundial created in 1890 by Peter Hamilton, a local stonemason with guidance from the Johns Hopkins mathematics department. It tells the time for numerous places on earth but is now often inaccurate since the introduction of daylight savings time. Photo by John Santora

Read more

The World’s Oldest Rosarian by Donald Kirkley, June 23, 1929, retrieved at the Maryland Historical Society;
H. Furlong Baldwin Library on June 19, 2019

Catonsville Herald, November 16, 1949, retrieved at the Maryland Historical Society;
H. Furlong Baldwin Library on June 19, 2019

 Retyped article from Miami Herald, date unknown; retrieved at the Maryland Historical Society,
H. Furlong Baldwin Library on June 19, 2019

John Cook: America's Pioneer Hybridizer of Roses and Father of Radiance, John Cook, Incorporated, 1936; retrieved from Google Books June 22, 2019

Growing Rose Seedlings, John Cook, Maryland; Gardeners' Chronicle of America, 19(5): 226 (May 1915)

Uplands, Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed June 22, 2019