Postmedical career in full bloom

Surgeon lost finger, reinvented himself as Rose Man

The Rose Man - Irwin Ehrenreich - owns a nursery with his wife, Cindy Ehrenreich, in Carver. After an accident ended his days as a surgeon, he developed an intense interest in growing roses. The Rose Man - Irwin Ehrenreich - owns a nursery with his wife, Cindy Ehrenreich, in Carver. After an accident ended his days as a surgeon, he developed an intense interest in growing roses. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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CARVER - Irwin Ehrenreich’s medical career ended in the whirl of a table saw.

He picked up his two severed fingers, placed them on ice in a Ziploc bag, and brought them to the hospital. But only one finger could be reattached. His days as a surgeon were over.

A year later, the nine-fingered Rose Man was born. Cindy Ehrenreich, Irwin’s wife, wanted something to help him move forward and suggested the couple check out a rose festival in Barnstable Village. He came home with a miniature rose bush and a curiosity about the thorny perennial that turned into a fascination.

“I needed something to take over for what was missing, and roses was it,’’ Ehrenreich said.

On a sunny Wednesday, Irwin Ehrenreich, with a black-and-gray ponytail peeking out from under a baseball cap, is down by a large pond, rebuilding a yellow brick road.

In front of him is a sprawling sea of rose bushes, 650 varieties in all, from the formal but vulnerable English climbers to the harder-to-kill “Easy Elegance’’ blooms, around a large greenhouse and a decaying 1918 baggage car he is renovating as an office.

Behind him, across the pond, are the Ferris wheel and trains of Edaville USA, a popular children’s attraction.

And beneath him is a path of paver bricks, colored yellow with striping paint, but shifting underfoot in the sand. That won’t do, not when he’s envisioning crowds of visitors walking through his strange mingling of Munchkinland and mulch, where the lollipop swirl of bricks is punctuated by flower stakes topped with statues of the Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, where there are rose bushes named the Judy Garland floribunda, the Yellow Brick Road shrub, and the Over the Rainbow miniature, and, where, of course, there’s Toto, too, in the form of a small statue in the center with a little white marker that reads, “Toto - Cairn Terrier.’’

It’s a bit of a strange garden path, but it’s been a bit of a strange journey for Ehrenreich, aka the Rose Man, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn and, after a brief stint as a rock musician, had a successful career as an otolaryngological surgeon until the accident in his woodshop.

Now Ehrenreich and his wife run The Rose Man Nursery & Emporium, and when business is slow, which is often, Irwin is out in the narrow stretch of land inside the circular railroad track, constructing a 240-foot-long series of rose gardens along the narrow shoreline, each garden room featuring roses of a particular hue or type, and with a distinct design theme.

Ehrenreich, 58, is a long way from home.

He was raised in Borough Park, in an observant family that traces its ancestry to the Belzer Rabbi, a famous Hasidic spiritual leader. He says that seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show’’ led him to drift away from orthodoxy as an adolescent. After high school, he took several years off to play the bass guitar and keyboard in a series of rock bands.

Ehrenreich went back to school in 1973, studying chemistry at Brooklyn College, and then attending New York University medical school, and, after a year in Jerusalem, launching a career in ear, nose, and throat work.

“I really liked surgery - I liked the head and neck anatomy, because I thought it was complex and interesting,’’ he said.

After getting married and starting a family, Ehrenreich moved to Connecticut, and in 1993, to Cape Cod, which the family discovered after swapping a timeshare unit for a week in Mashpee.

The family bought a captain’s house that had been built in 1690, and spent years renovating it; it was while working on the house in his shop in the basement that Ehrenreich chopped off the second and middle fingers of his left hand in 1996.

“I was just daydreaming,’’ he says, by way of explanation.

He spent a week at Massachusetts General Hospital, where both fingers were reattached, but the middle finger turned blue a week later and had to be removed. Ehrenreich, who is left-handed, lost enough dexterity that microsurgery was no longer possible.

He also did a lot of work with children, and worried that they would be frightened by the sight of his four-fingered hand.

So Ehrenreich essentially retired. But living on disability didn’t suit him, either emotionally or financially, with three children and a large mortgage.

Gardening was not his thing - his only previous attempt at growing roses ended in the mandibles of some Japanese beetles. But that day at the Barnstable rose show piqued his interest, and he found himself attending meetings of the Seaside Rosarians, and then reading up on the history and cultivation of roses. He took a job in a garden store, where he was given the nickname Rose Man. He started a garden in his yard that grew to 500 roses. He lectured on roses, consulted on gardens, and became a familiar presence at meetings of rose clubs.

“The first time I ever saw him, it was at a lobster fest down on the Cape after the Yankee District rose show. He brought out his electric piano and began to sing stuff he used to play in his band,’’ said Marci Martin, president of the Connecticut Rose Society and the rosarian at Elizabeth Park, in Hartford, which claims to be the nation’s oldest municipal rose garden. “He used to play guitar, but he can’t because of his lost fingers, so he sits there and pounds on the piano.’’

After five years of working in the garden store, Ehrenreich started a business selling roses from his yard, which he did until the Barnstable Conservation Commission said his rose beds were illegally disturbing a wetland.

So last year, Irwin and Cindy moved their business to Carver, leasing land from a gardening client who owns Edaville.

Ehrenreich has a hard time putting into words why he loves the rose, which is prone to black spot and mildew and dying over the winter.

“I loved the beauty, the variety, the history, and it’s also challenging,’’ he said. “The more I got into it, the more I wanted to get into it.’’

He brightens when he talks about the elegance of the Crown Princess Margareta, an apricot-colored shrub rose, and the delicacy of Teasing Georgia, a yellow English bush.

He also notes, with satisfaction, that one of his least favorite roses, a pink shrub called the Auguste Renoir, is no longer in the catalog.

He says he used to enjoy hearing about other doctors’ challenging medical cases; now, he finds himself tuning out when the medical storytelling begins. Most of the couple’s friends now are rose-lovers.

“After a while, it became an obsession,’’ he admits. “I couldn’t wait for another winter to end, so I could get out there pruning.’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at