Gardener's Dirt: Old roses are Texas tough
By Beth Ellis - Victoria County Master Gardener Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
Nov. 23, 2011 at 5:23 a.m.
Updated Nov. 24, 2011 at 5:24 a.m.
Editor's note: This is Part I of a three-part series on roses, and in particular, old roses in Texas. The next two week's articles will include specific roses adapted to this area and why they thrive so well.
OK, I'll just admit it. I may be a master gardener, but my thumb is about as brown as it gets. I definitely inherited my grandmother's will to garden, but not her way. Master gardener training has done a lot to reduce the number of plants that expire under my watch, but there are still a few out there that are likely to shrivel up and die if I so much as look their way - hybrid tea roses among them.
My discovery of antiques
My first Medusa-like experience with roses happened long ago, and involved those hybrid teas that are sold each spring at every supermarket on the planet. The pair I acquired died horrible, black-spotted deaths (black spot fungus). Replacements met the same dismal end. Clearly, the fates were telling me that a relationship with hybrid teas was not meant to be. And so roses were out, until I discovered a group that can endure not only the scorching heat of south Texas summers, but also all the misguided care/benign neglect I can dish out - antiques.
A rose by any other name
You'll hear these lovelies referred to as "antique," "old," and "heirloom" roses. The American Rose Society considers any variety in existence before the 1867 introduction of the first hybrid tea to fall into this category. Many people are more lenient, considering plants older than 75 or 80 years to qualify. Some roses of more recent vintage, (ex: the "pioneer" class developed by the Antique Rose Emporium), get grouped with antiques, because they share some of the best characteristics of the old varieties, including disease resistance, good fragrance and variety in bloom and bush form.
Sweet for thousands of years
Roses have a long and venerated history, dating back thousands of years. For most of that time, they were prized above all for their scent. The ancient Chinese cultivated them at least 3,000 years ago. Two thousand years ago, the Romans did likewise. During the Middle Ages (1,000 years ago) and the Renaissance (500 years ago), roses were prized for medicinal purposes, as well as fragrance, and by the 1700s, they were being grown by settlers in the New World. And, of course, in the 1800s, they were the favorite flower of the Victorians.
Hardiness, fragrance dominated in early Texas
Of particular interest to us are roses cultivated in the early days of Texas. Records indicate that they were here shortly before the Texas Revolution, and they were probably cultivated far earlier than that in the old Spanish settlements of Goliad, San Antonio and Nacogdoches. By the time our great-grandmothers inherited these old beauties, varieties susceptible to harsh Texas conditions had literally been weeded out, leaving the strongest to thrive. For these venerable women, plant hardiness was a given, fragrance took center stage, pastel colors predominated and bloom form ranged from carefree blowsy to opulent cabbage.
Bloom form desired over fragrance
Priorities concerning the ideal rose changed during the 20th century. For perhaps the first time, fragrance - the very thing most prized by rosarians of earlier centuries - took a back seat to bloom form.
The blowsy flowers of sturdy antiques, like "Old Blush," were cast aside in favor of the large size, perfectly aligned petals, and pointed blooms of the new hybrid teas. In their quest to attain bloom perfection, rose breeders edited out much of the disease resistance, hardiness, fragrance and lush form contributed by old roses adapted to hot, humid climates.
As the 20th century progressed, hybrid teas cornered the market. Roses best adapted to life in the South languished forgotten in neglected cemeteries, abandoned homesteads and in the outdated, but lovingly tended gardens of those most wonderful caretakers of all - little old ladies.
Rustlers to the rescue
Fortunately, gardeners in the past 30 years have been blessed with the rediscovery of old roses that do well in our climate. Starting in the late 1970s, people like esteemed rosarian and author Pam Puryear, county extension agents Dr. Bill Welsh and Dr. Greg Grant and Michael Shoup of the Antique Rose Emporium led the charge in finding old Texas roses and making them available once again. They and their compatriots searched old highways, byways and other forgotten spots for hidden gems. Often, each discovery was accompanied by something equally precious - history.
History, hardiness documented
From the beginning, rose-rustling etiquette has dictated acquiring permission from owners before obtaining cuttings. This courtesy provided rustlers with the opportunity to document the histories of these treasured heirlooms, many of which have spanned decades - and sometimes centuries - of time with particular families. Among other things, this knowledge provided information on hardiness since families often took their roses with them as they moved from place to place, and it even gave clues about the original 19th century nurseries that introduced specific varieties to Texas.
Join me next week to learn about the old roses that are best adapted to our area. Specific roses, and why they work so well in our neck of the woods, will be discussed. In the mean time, you may want to check out the books and websites I have noted.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.