This Group of Gardening Bandits Rescued the Heirloom Roses of Texas
In the early 1980s, they saved these flowers from extinction.
The Great Rose Rescue
Sharp pruning shears, plenty of insect repellent, a sure cure for poison ivy, stout boots, some dollar bills, an honest-seeming face, the words for ‘friend’ and ‘don’t shoot’ in several languages, plastic bags, a supply of willow water, someone to drive the getaway car, and a sense of mission.”
These are the surprising qualities that Pam Puryear, founder of the Texas Rose Rustlers, looked for in the people she recruited to save antique roses nearly 40 years ago.
Also known as heirloom or pass-along roses, these beauties are not finicky hybrid tea roses. Antique selections aren’t like those thorny divas. As tea roses grew in popularity in the 1980s, the heirloom types were falling into obscurity. Pushed from the spotlight, they continued to thrive in offbeat locales like overgrown farm fields and forgotten cemeteries.
You see, they’d been through quite a bit already to make it that far. Fancy (and wealthy) Southerners brought over antique roses from Europe in the 19th century to grow in their own gardens and eventually passed them on to friends and family. The remaining flowers proved themselves tough enough to handle the heat of Texas. These are the vigorous roses you see growing easily into flowering shrubs, climbing up trellises, and blooming repeatedly without much input from the growers.
Rather than risk losing these flowers, the Texas Rose Rustlers sought out as many as they could. Here, founding member Dr. William C. Welch, a professor at Texas A&M University and coauthor of The Rose Rustlers, shares the tales of his 12 favorite buds.
The Brenham, Texas-based Antique Rose Emporium (shown here) ships flowers nationwide and is open for visits.
Dr. William C. Welch describes his colorful friend Pam of Navasota, Texas, as one of the best. She was a professionally trained historian, but more than that, she was passionate about antique roses. She found them on old sites, brought them back into cultivation, and inspired others to do the same.
The movement has grown large enough to hold regular meetings and rose exchanges. Find one at texasroserustlers.com.
‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’
This may be the most beautiful rose ever created. Puryear found it in Anderson, Texas, a town near Navasota. She knocked on the door of Mary Minor, who cheerfully responded to questions about her nearly 6-foot-tall-and-wide rosebush that was covered in pretty, sweet-smelling, pink flowers. Why was it so large? Minor said she applied “lots of improvement” (manure).
This is a compact reblooming rose that is useful as a low hedge, specimen, or mass. Its pale pink flowers bloom freely from early spring to late fall, and it does not have many thorns along its stems.
Large, gorgeous, and fragrant, ‘Belinda’s Dream’ has bright pink blooms ideal for cutting. Dr. Robert Basye, who was a math professor at Texas A&M, shared it with the horticulture department and then allowed it to be made publicly available.
‘Highway 290 Pink Buttons’
This fascinating little rose, was discovered by Houston-area rustlers in a rural patch of land along U.S. 290 west of the city. Its tiny pink flowers are intensely double and occur in clusters. Try it in containers, in a border, or in mass plantings, where it may reach a mature height of about 2 feet.
This rose mentioned in writings about the earliest Texas gardens of the 1830s, is probably the source of the everblooming trait in all our roses. The pink flowers occur from midspring to late fall. ‘Old Blush’ makes a wonderful 3- to 5-foot hedge, especially when lined with cemetery white irises (Iris albicans) and ‘Grand Primo’ narcissus.
‘Duchesse de Brabant’
This tea rose introduced in 1957, has been found at a number of old homesites and cemeteries. The lovely bright pink flowers blossom throughout the growing season and offer an intense scent.
‘Mrs. B.R. Cant’
This is one of the most useful of the old roses, and it’s a strong repeat bloomer. The large, fragrant flowers have pale, silvery rose-colored petals tipped with a darker shade.
‘Cramoisi Supérieur’ appears in many Southern gardens, with its velvety crimson double flowers. It’s glorious in the spring, but that’s sometimes eclipsed by a fall bloom that begins a few weeks after the plant is lightly pruned and fertilized in mid-August.
This is another gem from the Navasota area, found when Puryear noticed a unique, striking hedge in Martha Gonzales’ neatly kept garden. It was very compact with reddish foliage and lots of small, bright red flowers. This selection is great displayed as a mass planting.
Vigorous, disease resistant, and continuously flowering, ‘Natchitoches Noisette’ has medium-size, pink, fragrant blooms. I discovered it at the American Cemetery in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which is the oldest community in the Louisiana Purchase. This rose roots easily, and it makes a great hedge in any garden.
‘Katy Road Pink’
This rose was found during a Houston-area rustle that included Puryear. Some collectors think this rose is actually ‘Carefree Beauty,’ a 20th-century hybrid musk. Whatever it is, rose rustlers—and many gardeners—recognize its value in the landscape. It also produces really nice hips (fruit) that are high in vitamin C and fine for making rose hip jelly.
This rose is named for a well-known rose grower in the New Orleans area. Sadly, she lost both her parents and her house during Hurricane Katrina. When she returned home several months later, she found that only one of her 350 roses had survived the storm. Friends decided to name it for Martin and sell it through Gulf Coast nurseries to help raise funds to restore historic gardens in the area. It grows quickly and is thornless, flowering heavily in the spring and offering another bloom in fall once it’s established.
Required Reading for Rosarians
Wherever botany, history, and humans meet, fascinating tales unfold. In The Rose Rustlers, Greg Grant and William C. Welch offer their in-depth account of one of the largest plant-hunting efforts of the 20th century: the quest to save antique roses from disappearing from the market. This book brings another perspective on the heirloom-rose world, first introduced in Thomas Christopher’s In Search of Lost Roses and Steve Bender and Felder Rushing’s Passalong Plants.