I never think of an iris or a daisy as a “he” or a “she.” Yet I’ve never considered old-fashioned roses as anything else. It isn’t just their lush blossoms, delicate hues, and intoxicating fragrance that seduce me, or even their carefree nature. It’s the allure of names like Duchesse de Brabant and Louis-Philippe, which imbue them with such personality that you half expect them to be sipping tea and nibbling crumpets when you’re not looking.
My love affair with old garden roses took root about fifteen years ago, when I carted home my first loads of Lady This and Madame That from the Antique Rose Emporium, in Independence. Although our small Houston yard could accommodate only a fraction of the social registry, I fantasized over the Emporium’s catalog, whose pages featured more characters than a Henry James novel. Who, I wondered, was the real Lady Banks? The actual Archduke Charles? No one, it appeared, had planted these stories in one place, so about five years ago, I tumbled into the thorny rabbit hole where horticulture and human culture collide. Intrigued by the challenge of creating modern botanical images that might also be viewed as character portraits, photographer Don Glentzer, my husband, set up a makeshift studio at the Emporium, where owner Mike Shoup let us snip subjects from his gardens. We had a book contract by early 2006, along with a deadline: just one spring to capture fifty picture-perfect roses with compelling and accessible stories. Now Pink Ladies & Crimson Gents has finally blossomed.
Like recent roses that honor Lady Bird Johnson and Diana, Princess of Wales, many old-fashioned cultivars commemorate celebrities from other eras. Among them are aristocrats and artists, war heroes and horticultural luminaries—many of whom might be forgotten if they didn’t linger in our gardens. This is especially true in Texas, where dozens of roses have flourished for more than a century, planted by immigrants who cherished them as sentimental reminders of home. Old cultivars are so plentiful here, in fact, that rosarians aren’t certain which one inspired the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Of course, pink, crimson, white, and apricot roses, too, are as ingrained in the state’s heritage as barbecue and kolaches. Here are a few that might make you rethink that anthem.