Constructing the "Garland of Roses" for the Kentucky Derby

May 2, 2014

Credit Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday, the winner of the Kentucky Derby will be presented with a beautifully-ornate wreath of roses traditionally known as the Garland of Roses. For the last 28 years, the Garland project has been constructed by a team of florists at the Kroger Company, and Carol Besler has been there for every one of those 28 years. 

The wreath is made up of 400 red roses, the official flower of the Kentucky Derby, sewn into a green satin backing with the seal of the Commonwealth on one side and the Twin Spires with the number of the Derby's year embroidered on the other.

Chad Lampe spoke to Besler, who is now the manager of the floral design center at the Kroger in Louisville, about how the type of rose is determined and the hours of hard work that go into constructing one of the most cherished traditions in Kentucky Derby history. 

"I've been with the Kroger company for 38 years now and 28 of those years have been in the floral industry," said Besler. "This Derby will be Kroger's 28 years and I have been involved for all of those years. That very first year I was behind the scenes, prepping the roses, and after the second year I've been hands on with the Garland of Roses." 

Each year's Garland looks similar, but it's the small intricacies in the design and the manner of manufacturing that change over the years.

"When we first started the Garlands, we were stitching through the rose and that was bringing harm to the flower," said Besler. "We're still sewing with needle and thread but we're actually inserting it now through the fabric of the backing into water valves and stitching around the stem." 

The Kroger florists, also known as the Rose Team, also take into account which type of rose to use, which has also steadily changed over the years. 

"2011 was when we started using the Freedom rose," said Besler. "Prior to that we were using the Royalty and then it changed to the Classy and now we are using the Freedom rose. "There are changes in the growers and what's available to us. Both the Royalty and Classy have performed very well for us but we can no longer get them in the quantity that we need. But the Freedom rose is just magnificent, I hope it becomes a new tradition." 

  When the winning horse reaches the winner's circle, the 400-rose Garland is draped around its neck. Besler says the weight also has to be accounted for to be sure the horse is comfortable. 

"It weighs approximately 40 to 42 pounds," said Besler. "And it can't be too heavy because its a foreign object to the thoroughbred." 

After the Derby, the backing of the Garland is presented as a souvenir to the owner. The roses themselves are usually free-dried and turned into a commemorative display. 

The Rose Team also constructs the jockey's bouquet and floral urns a the winner's circle. Besler says by the end of the Derby, they will have gone through close to 7,500 roses, that's a lot of prickly thorns to account for.

"I think we've gotten used to it," said Besler. "We might have a few battle scars from the thorns on our hands, but it's all worth it."