Carl Cato. Courtesy of the Cato family.

When Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery lines up dozens upon dozens of roses for sale every year, it’s like a horticultural Bat Signal for those on the hunt for rare and antique varieties.

The month-long antique rose sale, now in its 27th year, brings visitors from across the region and across state lines to pick up coordinated orders or just to browse what the historic cemetery has to offer. 

When they cart off the young plants to bring beauty and variety to gardens all over, it’s perhaps the most active aspect of the late rosarian Carl Cato’s legacy. 

Carl Cato. Courtesy of the Cato family.

Many of the blooms for sale are clippings taken from the cemetery’s gardens, including the namesake Carl Porter Cato Garden, which started off with plants from his personal garden after he died in 1996. A hobbyist rosarian, Cato had a hand in beautifying several key locations in Lynchburg and made a point of rescuing and preserving rare rose varieties he found in the area.

“All he wanted to do was share roses with the world, and thought the more people who grew them, the more likely they’d be saved,” said Jane White, the first director of Old City Cemetery who worked in tandem with Cato for many projects.

And now, his legacy will be engraved on a historical highway marker just outside the cemetery, thanks to White’s extensive experience establishing such markers across the Hill City. She’s written enough of the texts for Lynchburg’s numerous markers on historic figures to know the process like the back of her hand, but Cato is one of a few with whom she had a personal relationship — considering him almost an uncle.

White first looked Cato up in the phone book in the early ‘80s when she and others were working to preserve the property of Anne Spencer, a famous Harlem Renaissance poet who lived off of Lynchburg’s Pierce Street and boasted an impressive garden herself, full of old roses. 

White recalled being immediately impressed with Cato’s kindness and expertise. 

“He could tell in a minute the names just by looking at the thorns, the leaf structure and so forth,” she said.

A retired engineer who at the time was getting too old to do much of the dirty work, Cato was a modest and quiet man with an unparalleled passion, White recalled. 

“I was his main worker bee,” she said. “He was teaching me all the time.” 

That passion made him an internationally renowned expert, helping to found the Heritage Rose Foundation, networking with rose societies and coordinating near and far to save rare varieties.

Consulting with Cato on how to bring the beauty of rare roses to the cemetery in the ‘80s was the “best thing I ever did,” White said. Planting a carefully planned garden of 57 varieties, dating all the way back before 1581, along the remains of the cemetery’s old brick wall was a many-handed labor that established it as a rose haven.

Beyond the rich history inherent to the cemetery from the people buried there and the property itself, the roses have become a key part of its identity, said Denise McDonald, the current director.

“People will just call me and say, ‘How are the roses, Denise?’” she laughed.

Alongside the rose sale, Old City Cemetery hosts several rose-centered festival events in the spring that further cement Cato’s legacy. McDonald said others have added onto Cato’s contributions over the years and it’s a fitting honor to have his name and story stand just outside the cemetery’s gates.

As the historic marker states, Cato saved several heirloom rose varieties thought to be lost, like Cato’s Cluster and the spineless chestnut rose. White said he “would turn around his car on the dime to ask for a clipping,” recalling when he found a rare plant in a vacant lot that was about to be bulldozed and stalled the process long enough for them to dig up the rose.

In Texas, she said they’d call someone like him a “rose wrangler.” 

Restoring Lawrence Elder’s rose garden near Monument Terrace (a site with its own historic marker) in 1986 was Cato’s idea. White said she and others in the Blue Ridge Rose Society were happy to help him spread some of that beauty to downtown Lynchburg. Cato had also worked on roses in another cemetery before White met him.

When she got to visit his personal garden, White said she was surprised at how unassuming it was — but the care evident there made her fall in love with roses. He’d later leave those plants to her and a few others after he died, and they eventually rehomed them at the cemetery.

“Come into my garden, I want my roses to meet you,” Cato would say. 

“Each rose to him was a person of course,” White added.

The dedication ceremony for Cato’s marker will be at Old City Cemetery’s Bicentennial Chapel at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Rachel Mahoney

Rachel Mahoney has worked as a journalist in Virginia for seven years and has won several press awards. She lives in Lynchburg.