This weekend the European Football Championships began, with Poland and Ukraine co-hosting the matches in several cities in their respective countries. One of those cities is Donetsk, in Ukraine, which I had never heard of before seeing a report about it on the BBC earlier this week, in the lead-up to the competition getting underway. In the course of watching the news report, I was struck by a particularly charming custom of the city, which I think we ought to consider, wherever we are.
Donestsk is a relatively new city for this part of the world, having been founded in 1869 when a Welsh businessman built up the steel and coal industries here, as a British concession from the Russian Tsar during the Industrial Revolution. Its current population is around 1 million people, and one of the things the city is most proud of is that in the public gardens around town, it is estimated that they have planted one rose for each citizen. It has earned Donetsk the nickname, “City of A Million Roses”. This is a relatively new custom which took off in the mid-1980’s under Perestroika, to soften some of the harsher lines of the Soviet-area architecture that dominates much of the city. Fortunately, having been laid out by the British, the town has a rational plan but is not lacking in parks and green space, as is the case in so many Soviet industrial cities.
I do not know for certain whether there is an official city ordinance to assure that there is one rose planted for each citizen: my knowledge of Ukrainian is non-existent, and with so many spam attacks coming out of Ukraine, performing too many internet searches of sites based in that country is both impractical and dangerous. However, the fact that this is an understood custom in Donestsk to honor its citizenry in this way is something that struck me as being a particularly good idea. On a practical level it a wonderful investment, aesthetically, for the beautification of the city, which no doubt requires significant municipal funds for maintenance and upkeep. Yet this is presumably counter-balanced by the fact that such floral displays must draw in tourist revenue throughout the spring and summer when the roses are in bloom, and people stroll through the city parks and gardens to admire the estimated 180 different cultivars of roses on display.
On a symbolic level, what I find deeply appealing about this practice is its life-affirming nature. Rather than looking at its growing population as a burden, the people of Donetsk look at their fellow citizens as being a gift of life, and something to celebrate with a living, growing, beautiful thing. They have even created permanent sculptures of roses placed around the city, so that in the winter months when the real roses are dormant, the people will be reminded of the unique beauty of their local custom.
This got me thinking about whether, in some capacity, we might be able to encourage a similar custom in our own families and communities. Obviously there are budgetary constraints to consider: roses can be finicky plants, with some varietals requiring a great deal of care. It may not be a practical expenditure in many instances to try to have a rose garden with the upkeep that requires, and space may be very limited.
Recently at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital for example, a generous, anonymous benefactor donated a beautiful stone statue of Our Lady, along with a plinth and landscaping, for the somewhat long and narrow strip of garden which the parish has on one side of the church. The church itself, along with the rectory and parish hall, take up almost all of the land on the city lot, which means that this is really the only significant bit of green space we have. It would not be practical for us, in such a comparatively tiny garden, to be able to plant hundreds of flowers for the hundreds of registered parishioners in the parish.
Yet for some groups and communities, planting a rose or some other plant for each member is not impractical. A large suburban parish with plenty of room for landscaping, for example, could do so. The same idea could be adapted to apply to all sorts of groups: schools, businesses, civic organizations, municipalities, etc. And the communities of our families, or even those who live in community for religious reasons, like monks and nuns, or for social-financial reasons, like flatmates or housemates, could do the same.
If you are a family of five, for example, could you plant a rosebush for each member of the family in your yard? Or if not roses, what about another type of perennial that requires less work? If you do not have a yard, could you grow five perennial, potted flowering plants that die back in winter, such as Solomon’s Seal, on a window sill or balcony? There are many ways you could take the idea and make it your own, with something meaningful to you.
Gardens such as those in Donetsk may be out of reach for many, where there are budgetary and space constraints. However there are many ways to symbolically honor the people with whom you live, work, and serve, by using living things as the Ukrainian people do. It is a way of life re-affirming life, recognizing God’s gift of creation, displaying to visitors and passersby that you care about the people in your life, and that you are grateful to be able to tend to those relationships and keep them flourishing.