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