Ramblin’ Roses

It’s not surprising that antique roses are growing in popularity— only that they took so long to make their comeback. Where to see them and how to grow them: a selective guide.

March 1998By Comments

IT IS A FRIGID SATURDAY IN NOVEMBER and the rain is blowing sideways through the pavilion at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park. I’m shivering so violently my notes look like they’re in Arabic. But the two dozen hardy souls gathered around the picnic tables are undeterred by the harsh conditions, warmed by their passion for plants. They paw through a collection of clear plastic bags spread out across several tables. The bags, fogged with condensation, contain what appear to be green twigs about six inches long, each bearing a few sets of leaves. To me, they all look like the same species of thorny twig, but the bags are carefully labeled with the “study names” of the as-yet-unidentified roses: Schulenburg Apricot, Katy Road Pink, Highway 290 Pink Buttons. These are cuttings of Old Garden Roses, the inauspicious beginnings of those rugged plants seen blooming profusely in cemeteries and climbing to the roofs of abandoned homesteads around Texas. They are the roses whose neglected glory taunts anyone who has struggled to keep finicky Modern Hybrid Teas alive during our long, hot summers.

Technically speaking, an Old Garden Rose, as defined and capitalized by the American Rose Society, is one belonging to a class of rose that existed before 1867 (there are forty classes of roses in all). That’s the year the first of the Modern Hybrid Teas, with their long, straight stems and perfect flowers, were introduced. Note that it’s the class of rose, such as China or Gallica, not the variety of rose in a class, to which this cutoff date applies. Someone could create a brand-new China rose in 2050, and it would still be an Old Garden Rose. Texas gardeners, however, are not a group known to cling to a technicality. In some circles the definition has now expanded to include any rose more than 75 years old. And true gardening iconoclasts use the term loosely to describe any rose that thrives in their garden without bother. “If it looks like an old rose and grows like an old rose and smells like an old rose, as far as we’re concerned, it is one,” says William C. Welch, a professor of horticulture at Texas A&M and the author of Antique Roses for the South.

Antique roses are disease resistant, sometimes everblooming, and—perhaps most important—richly scented. Their graceful forms, which range from low, mounding shrubs to vigorous climbers and eight-foot-high hedgerows, fit easily into a variety of landscapes. So it’s not surprising that they are growing in popularity faster than an Old Blush in a sunny corner. What is surprising is that they ever fell from grace and that they took so long to make a comeback, especially when you consider that their persnickety offspring, the Modern Hybrid Teas, are vulnerable to black spot and rust, shrivel in the heat, and require enough pruning, spraying, feeding, and all-around mollycoddling to spur even the most devout rose lover to switch to silk flowers.

Their revival is largely due to the nuts—uh, gardening enthusiasts—who organized that frigid cutting exchange, members of the Texas Rose Rustlers. This group began about twenty years ago as a personal quest by a few rose fanatics to uncover the mysteries and histories of forgotten roses around our state. Today, thanks to their efforts and the pass-along habits of Southern gardeners, old roses are new again.

Rose Routes

THE STORY OF THE PEOPLE AND EVENTS that eventually collided to create this old-rose renaissance in Texas has the historical sweep of a Sidney Sheldon miniseries. We open with the “discovery” of China and Tea roses in China in the mid-1700’s by European botanists who prized their everblooming qualities. Horticulturists in France and England went wild cross-cultivating these imports with their spring-blooming Gallicas, Musks, Damasks, and Centifolias, producing new classes of roses like repeat-blooming Noisettes, Bourbons, and Hybrid Perpetuals. After a couple hundred years, they had managed to breed out the sweet scents, the vigor, and the disease resistance of the parent plants in favor of huge, perfect flowers in brilliant colors that they called Hybrid Teas.

In the meantime, early pioneers were sailing to America with cuttings from their treasured old roses tucked into their belongings. Settlers continued to push westward, carrying cuttings into the wilderness, and some of them were eventually plunked into Texas soil beneath the blazing Texas sun. Many of the cool-loving plants, which had fared well in northern motherlands, perished here, but some, especially those with heat-loving China or Tea in their heritage, thrived—or at least survived. Then along came the Civil War, after which gardeners in the impoverished South learned to make do with roses they’d raised for generations and to exchange favored cuttings.

When homogenization hit the American landscape in the fifties, many Texas and Southern gardeners tossed aside their old beauties for the showy blooms of the Hybrid Tea roses featured in full-color splendor in catalogs from Europe and the north. But we don’t have the same climate as New Hampshire, or even old Hampshire. The cold-hardy roses—Peace, Sterling Silver, Iceberg, and others—were shipped down here from their chilly climes only to languish in our heat.

One of those who succumbed to the propaganda was Pamela Puryear, who lives in Navasota. “I decided I just had to have a Sterling Silver [a 1957 Hybrid Tea],” she says. “I took its pH, sprayed it, pruned it, fussed with its soil. It produced three blooms and then it died.

“It was an annual,” jokes Puryear, who is 54. She ordered Old Garden Roses from an Ohio catalog, but they were Damasks, Centifolias, and Moss roses, which fared no better in the heat than the hybrids. She joined the Heritage Roses Group, whose membership was concentrated in Virginia, New York, and California: “They were encouraging, but they couldn’t help me very much because my climate is different.”

Finally, in the mid-seventies, Puryear encountered a rose in nearby Washington County that restored her rosy outlook. In front of an 1824 log house stood two rosebushes, eight feet tall and eight feet wide, in full bloom, in the middle of August, in soil Puryear describes as “caliche on top of sandstone.” She soon learned that this rose, with its delicate hot pink blossoms, was none other than Old Blush, one of the original China roses brought back by those eighteenth-century European rosarians in 1752. Soon Puryear noticed other old roses in the area, growing luxuriantly in cemeteries, along old fences, and in the yards of houses on the other side of the tracks.

Meanwhile, in Houston, Margaret Sharpe had been growing Hybrid Tea roses and judging American Rose Society shows for years. Her interest in old roses was kindled by the approaching 1986 Republic of Texas sesquicentennial, which inspired her to find out which roses were grown 150 years earlier and whether any still survived. She met Puryear, an avid historian, at a Houston Rose Society function, and the rustling and the research began in earnest. “Pam and I went looking at these old homesteads in Washington and all around,” says Sharpe, now in her late seventies and still quick with her clippers. “We’d find these old roses, get cuttings, take them home, and see if we could grow them. Sometimes we’d gather up four or five other people to go along with us. By the early eighties, we had the thing going pretty good.” The thing became the Texas Rose Rustlers.

Around this time, A&M horticulturist Welch began looking for landscape plants that would fare better in most parts of Texas than the azaleas-of-the-hour. He remembered the roses of his youth, the ones his German ancestors had grown in the gardens of their new Texas homes and handed down from generation to generation, but he couldn’t find them for sale anywhere. Then he started rooting around on his wife’s family farm in northern Louisiana and hit pay dirt. Although the gardens had been neglected for at least a decade, he unearthed several old roses still raring to grow.

“I took cuttings from one plant there not knowing what it was,” says the 58-year-old Welch. “I rooted them, and a couple of years later, when they bloomed, I realized it was something kind of unusual.” He eventually identified his Swamp Rose, a shrub whose soft pink flowers can nearly cover its weeping canes, from copies of works by French artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté, Empress Josephine’s official flower painter at Malmaison.

As small as the old-rose circle was at the time, it wasn’t long before Puryear showed up at Welch’s office one day, announcing, “We need to meet.” She and Sharpe would share their cuttings, she told him, if he’d share his botanical expertise on identification. By the early eighties this trio was wrangling roses together. Armed with an ice chest, soggy paper towels, garden clippers, and cream-cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches, they’d pile into a car to scour the countryside for forgotten blooms.

Meanwhile, in the little town of Independence, outside Brenham, horticulturist and wholesale nurseryman Mike Shoup was growing the wax-leaf ligustrums and red-tipped photinias demanded by the staid gardens of the time. He might still be dusting the powdery mildew off his pittosporum if the state’s economy hadn’t hit the compost pile in the early eighties. Lush, exotic landscapes were the last thing on foreclosed homeowners’ minds. Scrambling to find a niche for his nursery business, Shoup began to tinker with native plants. On a foray into the countryside near the nursery, a member of his staff discovered a lusty rose spread out along a chain-link fence, cloaking its lethal spurs beneath creamy yellow, five-petal flowers the size of saucers. The rose was identified as the incredible Mermaid, which can grow thirty feet high and doesn’t mind being pruned with a chain saw. But Shoup couldn’t find it for sale anywhere. So he took cuttings and began to propagate it, offering it and other vigorous foundlings for sale alongside his native plants.

Shoup heard about the Rustlers from Welch, whom he had met as a graduate student at A&M. He tagged along on several rustles, swapping cuttings and tips, wondering if perhaps the roses he was saving could save his business. Then, in 1983, he and Welch started the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence (Welch later left the business). The Emporium now cultivates more than 500 varieties of roses, the best of both the new and the old. Shoup, who is 45, launched another nursery outside Atlanta, Georgia, four years ago, and his newest location opened for business in San Antonio in February. Almost seventy thousand people roamed through his display gardens in Independence last year, bloom-bedazzled, filling little red wagons with two-gallon pots of Bourbons and Noisettes like Mrs. B. R. Cant and Rêve d’Or and as-yet-unidentified found roses like Pamela’s Pink and Puerto Rico.

If you doubt the Rustlers’ impact on the commercial success and current availability of old roses, consider this: Every specimen of the Emporium’s Souvenir de la Malmaison, an 1843 Bourbon with large, dense pink blooms, is a direct descendant of the bush the intrepid band discovered at Mary Minor’s home in Anderson.

So You Want to Be a Rustler?

AS MEMBERSHIP IN THE TEXAS Rose Rustlers swelled, the group rustles began to collapse under their own weight, with rookie members descending on the gardens of their hosts by the dozens, clippers snapping. “I stopped going on group rustles because I felt like we were abusing the generosity of the gardeners who allowed us to take cuttings,” says Shoup. Other rustlers also became uncomfortable with the locustlike invasions, so cutting exchanges like the one at Washington-on-the-Brazos have now replaced the group rustles. “It isn’t like the wild old days,” says Puryear.

Then again, nothing is, but that shouldn’t deter you from a little rustling of your own. Says Shoup: “Rose rustling on a one-on-one basis is still so important, because you’re preserving and passing down family roses and their histories.” Although gardening lore holds that a stolen plant will fare much better than a given one, always ask permission. Your cutting won’t grow at all if you get shot or you’re in jail. Besides, your encounter with the rose’s owner is integral to the quest; the story of a rose can sometimes be as sweet as its scent. Welch, for instance, tells a circuitous tale about a cutting from a climbing variety of Old Blush he received from Cleo Barnwell, an avid rosarian now in her nineties who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, who got her cutting from Elizabeth Lawrence, “probably the greatest garden writer the South ever produced.” He grew the climber, passing along cuttings to friends, colleagues, and the Emporium. Now it’s all over the place. He has seen its offspring swallowing the front of the Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg. I have one of its babies by my front gate; it’s three years old and as big as a Volkswagen.

But that’s not the end of the story. Several years later, Welch arranged to tour the late Lawrence’s garden in Charlotte, North Carolina: “There, growing up a tree, was this beautiful specimen of Old Blush. I said, ‘Aha! I have found my plant.’” But no. His guide told him that Lawrence had gotten the cutting from a neighbor, Elizabeth Barnhill Clarkson. Welch went to look at that plant. “Aha!” he said. But no again. Clarkson had brought the cutting for that plant from Uvalde when she moved to Charlotte as a bride in the twenties. Welch now has friends scouring Uvalde for the original plant.

Welch suggests you start looking for old roses in your own family and community; if it’s growing and blooming in your area, it’s tried-and-true. Cruise the “modest” neighborhoods where gardeners held on to the plants that worked, either because they appreciated them or because they couldn’t afford the latest. And while a lot of cemetery roses, once ripe for the clipping, have been destroyed by the heavy hand of perpetual care, they’re still out there. I’ve got my eye on a fountain-shaped bush with deep red flowers I saw blooming in East Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery in December.

When should you conduct your search? Although some old roses will bloom nearly year-round, most are in their fullest glory in the spring and fall, flagging down even the most nearsighted or distracted rustler. In recommending cutting times, Liz Druitt, the author of The Organic Rose Garden and co-author with Shoup of Landscaping With Antique Roses, takes into account the best time to root those cuttings: “Night temperatures should be moderately cool—50 to 60 degrees—and day temperatures shouldn’t exceed the high 80’s.” In other words, fall is optimum. But carry your cutting kit, which should consist of a good pair of pruning shears, paper towels, a jug of water, plastic bags, tags, and a pencil, in your car at all times, just in case.

Cutting Remarks

ONCE YOU’VE SPOTTED A JEWEL AND  gotten permission to snip away, what do you do? Resist the temptation to identify the rose first. For one thing, if you’re in love, does a name matter? For another, the name of the rose is more elusive than you might imagine. Even those who have moved far beyond casual identification from bloom color and leaf shape and into the botanical scrutiny of a plant’s sexual parts have learned to shun certainty. However, if you’re after old roses, you should at least be able to distinguish the stiff, leggy canes (stems) and the large, glossy leaves of the Modern Hybrid Teas from the mounded, rambling, or climbing forms of Teas, Chinas, and Noisettes, the Texas trinity of vintage bloomers.

Once you start cutting, never take more than a plant can afford to spare. The point is to save old roses, not decimate the survivors. Cut off a six- to eight-inch section of rose cane that has finished blooming—growth that’s neither too old nor too new—making sure to get several sets of leaves. Underneath the leaves, where they join the cane, are the triggers for your rose sprout, little green bumps called auxiliary buds, or leaf nodes, that will, if all goes well, send out roots when stuck in soil. Wrap the cutting in a damp paper towel, drop it in a plastic bag, seal it, label it, and protect it from heat and cold.

The sooner you can “stick,” or plant, your cutting to root it, the better. Gently strip the leaves from the lower half, exposing the auxiliary buds. Though cuttings might root without any foliage at all, a set or two of leaves on the top half help the twig carry out food production until roots form. Next, recut the twig about half an inch from the end at a 45-degree angle. The rose rooters I talked with were ambivalent about dipping the ends of cuttings in commercial rooting powder. It can be helpful, but it’s not necessary, and some consider it expensive and offensively synthetic (read: not organic).

You can stick your cutting directly into the ground, but keep in mind that this isn’t its final resting place. While grown-up roses prefer a sunny location, the cuttings need to be sheltered from direct sunlight during their root-forming stage. Or you can root your cuttings in small containers—even a paper cup will do. In either case, stick the cutting in loose, premoistened, well-draining soil (pre-drill the hole in the soil with a pencil to prevent damaging the cutting), making sure that at least one of the exposed auxiliary buds is covered. In six weeks your cutting will be rooted. Maybe. Don’t expect 100 percent success, although you can increase your odds by sticking Chinas and Teas, which root most easily. Keep the cutting moist but not soggy, and if you stick it in the late fall, protect it from freezing by covering it with a glass jar or plastic bag.

I saw a simple propagation technique in Mike and Mary Herr’s garden in Splendora, where they collect and grow old roses to sell and use in their landscaping business. In the dappled shade of East Texas hardwoods, dozens of one-gallon Ziploc bags hung on a clothesline. If I had been in New York City, I’d have sworn it was some kind of avant-garde art installation. Inside each of the carefully labeled bags were four peat pots with rose cuttings sticking out of the top and white roots tangled around the bottom. (Peat pots, available at most nurseries, are those little containers made from compressed sphagnum moss so that the fragile seedlings grown in them can be planted pot and all when the time comes.) The cuttings stay damp and protected, soak up just enough sunlight in their suspended location, and are easily transported into the house during a cold snap. And you can see without a doubt whether they’re ready to be transplanted into one-gallon containers.

Roses can also be grown from seed, but it’s a serendipitous and time-intensive process. The seeds are found inside the hips of only select rose varieties (after a rose’s petals fall, a small, round, usually red fruit called a hip is left behind). These seeds produce a plant that’s completely different—botanically speaking—from the parent plant, and some seeds take years to sprout and more to bloom.

For a Few Dollars More

WHILE NURTURING A RUSTLED ROSE from cutting to flowering shrub will earn you major bragging rights, this time-consuming process is not for everyone. There’s no shame in simply buying your old roses, but choose wisely. If you order your roses by mail, look for those grown on their own roots. Sometimes less vigorous roses are grafted to the more hardy root stock of a different rose. If the grafted rose succumbs, you’ll be left with whatever rose shoots up from the mystery root—not always a bad thing, but rather unpredictable.

Some mail-order suppliers, such as the Antique Rose Emporium, ship roses in containers as well as in the more commonly available bare-root form, which initially look more like kindling than plants. One problem with mail-ordering roses from outside your area—especially bare-root—is they are shipped only during that nursery’s dormant season, which can differ entirely from the optimum fall planting time. Out-of-state growers may also specialize in old roses that do best in their climate, not yours. Always ask growers if a rose is recommended for your particular climate, and unless you live in the Panhandle, disregard “cold-hardiness” as a seal of approval. (It’s our summers that kill, not our winters.) The only full-service mail-order nursery in Texas is the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence (800-441-0002; catalog $5), but several out-of-state concerns, like California’s Greenmantle Nursery (3010 Ettersburg Road, Garberville, CA 95542; send an SASE for a free rose list) and Arena Rose Company (805-227-4094; catalog $5), are hip to our heated gardening demands and carry dozens of varieties of Chinas, Teas, and Noisettes.

Or you can pick out your roses yourself from one of the state’s smaller nurseries that operate by appointment, like Herr’s Lawn and Landscape in Splendora (281-689-7776) and Yesterday’s Roses near San Marcos (Leo and Carol Arguien, 512-357-2269). (You can find out about other specialty nurseries by joining one of the old-rose groups and perusing its newsletter; see “Rose Buds,” page 96.)

According to Shoup, the classes of roses that do best in most parts of Texas are:

Species roses: These are roses that grow wild in nature. The Prairie Rose, with clusters of five-petal pink flowers on arching canes, is native to North America, but Texans may be even more familiar with the Lady Banks (or Banksia) Rose (don’t you love that name?), the heat-loving climber from China that throws its sweeping canes over buildings and up trees, exploding in small, pale-yellow or white blooms at the end of winter. Species roses typically bloom only once a year, but, oh, what a show. “They herald the spring,” says Shoup. Consider the nearly thornless Swamp Rose for areas with poorly draining soil. Plant Mermaid on the side of your house and you can do away with burglar bars.

Chinas: Long-lived and often everblooming, these are the “nuts and bolts of the garden for hedging or foundation plantings,” says Shoup. Try the raspberry-scented Cramoisi Supérieur (which some insist is a Louis Philippe, the rose brought here from Europe in 1835 by Lorenzo de Zavala, who had been Mexico’s minister to France), with its lush red flowers; or the ubiquitous Old Blush.

Teas: These are the roses in your grandmother’s bouquets and can evoke all the romance of her time. Teas typically grow into vase-shaped shrubs perfect for hiding a house’s foundation, and are also used as specimen bushes in the landscape. Duchesse de Brabant sports large, fragrant blooms of soft pink that defy the hottest summers. One bush of Mrs. B. R. Cant, whose flowers are fat cabbages of silvery pink, is a garden in itself, growing eight feet up and out as long as it gets plenty of sun.

Noisettes: “When I give a talk and wear a tie,” says Shoup, “I tell people that I wore this tie not only to classy up my presentation but also because it gives vertical influence to this otherwise wide body. Noisettes are the ties of the garden. The vertical influence is the most important quality to an exceptional landscape.” Lamarque, with sweet-scented double-petaled blooms of the palest yellow, will happily climb and drip nostalgically over any structure it’s provided. Rêve d’Or’s large double-petaled butterscotch-colored flowers are shown to perfection if it’s trained to climb up a post.

The other classes of old roses, which are less enthusiastic about our hot weather, offer fewer choices, but you can find suitable varieties of Polyanthas, perfect for container gardening; lush-blooming Bourbons, the accidental cross between Old Blush and Autumn Damask; the versatile Hybrid Musks, which can be more shade-tolerant than other roses; and best suited for the northern reaches of the state, some old European Roses, which date back to the Middle Ages, and Hybrid Perpetuals, whose full, fragrant flowers almost make up for the plant’s spindly form.

A Time to Plant

FALL IS THE BEST TIME TO PLANT rooted cuttings, since the youngsters will get stressed out if transplanted in the heat of the summer. In Texas you can plant your established, store-bought roses anytime—unless you live in the Panhandle, where young plants should be protected from freezing temperatures.

The spring and summer before planting are the best times to prepare your beds. Keep two things in mind: sun and fresh air. While some roses might survive in the shade, few will thrive without six or more hours of direct sunlight, and stagnant air will make them susceptible to fungus problems. Consider, too, the growth habits—the size and shape—of your rose when choosing a site and provide a sturdy trellis or other structure for your skyrocketing climbers.

As for soil preparation, ideally the pH should be between 6.0 and 6.8 (test kits are available at most nurseries), but this isn’t nearly as critical as good drainage. With the exception of the Swamp Rose, no rose likes to keep its feet wet. Although old roses will sometimes tolerate even hard-packed clay, the better prepared the soil, the healthier the rose. “Good soil is usually dark, with an earthy fragrance that makes you want to dig into it immediately with your bare hands,” says author Druitt. If this is not the natural state of your garden soil, dig down at least a foot, mixing in compost until you can’t resist fondling the dirt. If you hate to dig (or live on a limestone ledge like I do and can’t), consider planting roses in raised beds at least eighteen inches above ground level and filled with good garden soil.

To plant a rose, dig a hole slightly larger than and as deep as the container it’s in. When the hole is filled, make sure the level of the soil around the rose remains at the same level as it was in the container. A bare-root rose should be soaked in water for about an hour before it’s planted in a hole large enough to comfortably accommodate its roots; spread the roots down around a pyramid of soil in the hole and fill it in. Then water the plants well and ignore them. Sort of.

Pamela Puryear and Margaret Sharpe both cautioned against babying old roses, but the plants will enjoy a good soaking once a week during dry spells, a top dressing with composted manure a couple of times a year, and a blanket of mulch. You can prune out dead wood or lop off wayward canes anytime, but don’t cut the plant back severely in the stressful heat of summer or chop off all your buds in late winter before they have a chance to bloom. If you want hips—decorative, seed-bearing, and good for making vitamin C—packed tea—to form on those varieties that produce them (Old Blush, Archduke Charles, and Rêve d’Or, to name a few), don’t remove the dead blossoms in the fall.

So, throw away your pruning calendar and your sulfur spray and just sit back and enjoy the show created by centuries of horticultural exploration and sometimes accidental propagation. And when the first spring bloom of rosebuds lights up your landscape, tip your clippers to the original rustlers—Sharpe, Puryear, Welch, and Shoup—who gathered up the forgotten blooming belles of Texas and saved them from mere memory.

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