On a sunny spring Friday, a visitor to Rock Creek Park spies a single rose sticking up out of a tiny boutonniere vase that’s half buried in the ground along Valley Trail. The flower is fresh. A few days later, another visitor passing the same spot might see another fresh rose. Or maybe a newly-plucked dahlia or aster. And a few days later: another.
The flowers, which are often found encircled by a pattern of strewn petals, don’t just appear in the spring. For at least six years, they’ve been showing up in the spot four or five times a week, all year long. Before 2010, the little vase would be placed on a bench. After a storm knocked over a tree, destroying the bench, the flowers migrated to a patch of dirt nearby.
Over the years, the curio has become a minor mystery to the runners, walkers, and bikers who pass it. Some leave notes. Others just ponder the identity of the unknown person responsible for this tiny piece of park beautification: Is it a piece of performance art? A gesture in memory of some romantic thing that had happened on that very bench? A religious ritual?
One afternoon, I left a note next to the vase: Could you please call me, whoever you are? The first two responses came from passers-by who’d happened upon the missive. Neither of them knew anything about the person, but both remembered the bench that used to sit there—and said they’d be happy to kick in some money to get it replaced.
Woodley Park resident Elizabeth McLanahan passes the site on her weekend-morning runs. She emailed me to say she found solace in the flowers after her mother died in 2006. “Seeing the bench and flowers always brings tears to my eyes—sadness, but also inspiration as my mom was devoted to nature, found calmness in its presence, and maintained the most magnificent flower beds at our home,” she wrote.
The woman behind the mystery, it turns out, has similar motivations for her act of floral generosity. Ursula Werner, 48, has been decorating the patch of park for over 10 years, in memory of her friend Paul Boldin. Initially, she planted 200 daffodils around the bench—something she repeats every fall. A few years later, she began leaving flowers in the little vase. In season, she brings them from her garden. Out of season, she’ll buy them at grocery stores.
Werner’s daughter was best friends with Boldin’s daughter at Lafayette Elementary School. Boldin, who worked at home as an economist for labor unions, coached the girls in soccer. He died of a heart attack at age 45.
Boldin and Werner had bonded over running. He introduced her to the route that ran right past the bench. “We got to be good friends and he found out I was running and he said, ‘Oh, you need to run with me on these trails.’” They only ran the trail once or twice before Boldin died in 2000. Werner planted her first daffodils the next fall, picking the spot because she thought Boldin’s widow, Liz McNichol, would see them on her drive to work.
“I felt like I had never thanked Paul for showing me the park, which I even to today consider so much a part of my internal peace,” Werner says. “Partly in honor of him, but also for his wife and for her daughter, I started planting daffodils around the bench because I knew that his wife, when she came home, would see this big bright burst of yellow because I planted about 200 daffodils. It was quite a site.”
Werner has heard other theories about what she’s doing. One year while she was planting daffodils, a woman walked by with her two daughters. Werner overheard the mother’s explanation: “She’s doing just what Miss Rumphius did.” It was a reference to the beloved children’s book character who plants lupine in the wild. “She’s adding a little beauty to the world.”
Eventually, Werner decided it was a shame that the daffodils only came up once a year. So she used one of her children’s ponytail holders to tie a vase for loose flowers onto the bench. The vase has now outlasted the bench, and Werner still refreshes its contents: She tucks flowers into a headband or a sock as she sprints through the park. “When I replace it I go get new water from the creek, put the new flower in the little container, and I take the old flower, and I just take all the petals off and I throw them all around so that they can sort of disintegrate,” Werner says.
A couple times a month, she jogs up to find that the old flower has vanished. “I sort of assume someone has taken it, and I feel like, you know, that’s OK,” Werner says. “It’s part of my gift. It’s part of the gift of the flowers to the park. It’s part of making people happy. When I get a note thanking me, I’m running under the assumption that people are happy to see the flowers, so it’s a nice affirmation that assumption is correct.”
Werner has heard from a few of her beneficiaries. “I’ve gotten a note at least twice,” she says. “Just a little tiny scrap of paper because people tend not to have paper and pencil in the park, saying, ‘Thank you for the flowers, it’s an inspiration,’ something like that.”
Last month, Werner found a particularly special gift. While on her run, she came across a colorful mosaic tile with a hand-crafted rose springing out of a heart. The gift-giver had placed Werner’s little vase in the middle of the rose.
“I know rationally that it was given to me by a person, a person who I don’t really know, and yet it felt like it was sort of a kind of spiritual gift that confirmed everything I believe is good about the park,” Werner says. “It was just very uplifting and confirmed the importance of believing in people, believing in beauty. Also, it makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
Over the years, the ritual has evolved from a simple tribute to Boldin into a gesture of love for Rock Creek. “It has really become a tribute from me to the park itself,” Werner says. “And a little piece of beauty—we should all have more of that in our lives.”
Since she began leaving the flowers, Werner’s life has seen its own changes. A former Department of Justice attorney, she’s given up the career—she calls herself a “lapsed lawyer”—and now writes. The park that Boldin showed her is the subject of her first collection of poetry, 2004’s In the Silence of the Woodruff. She’s since published a second book of poetry and says she’s at work on her first novel.
McNichol, Boldin’s widow, says she still sees the flowers even though her commute has changed. “I’m not a runner like Paul and Ursula, but I ride my bike through Rock Creek Park a lot and so it’s a nice place that I would sometimes walk my bike up there, cross the creek and there’s a little bridge there, and walk over and go to the bench,” she says. “It’s a nice place to have happy memories of our time together.”