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.
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