Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rose Rustling

What is rose rustling? It’s a term used to describe the process of collecting antique roses to propagate that are growing untended. This term was made popular in Thomas Christopher’s book, In Search of Lost Roses. This can be a solitary or group event.

Who rustles roses? Old rose addicts and history buffs.

When does one rustle roses? I have found it is best to do it at high rose tide, when the roses are in bloom so you can find the plants in the landscape.

Where does one rose rustle? Anywhere they may still be found growing- along roadsides, on abandoned farm sites, or in old, preferably untended cemeteries.

Why rustle roses? The goal is to preserve the roses originally grown in an area many years ago.

How does one rustle a rose? Well, that’s what this posting is all about.

Unlike mushroom collectors who guard the locations of their quarry, rose rustlers are more than willing to share the locations of their finds. If you don’t know any rose rustlers, though, all is not lost.

I came across my first antique roses walking with my wife through an old farm field. We came upon the cellar hole of a farmstead. Although the cellar hole was overgrown and not visible from the road, we noticed the pair of big old sugar maples standing sentinel, the overgrown lilacs, and drifts of daylily foliage. In the midst of this tangled mess, we saw some pink rose blossoms. These were not your typical garish hybrid tea type flower. They were flatter in shape and crowded with many petals of fragrant pink. Though the farm house was long gone (since at least the 1930s), the roses lived on. We collected some runners of those roses, being careful to leave most of the plants. We had found a Rosa gallica hybrid that was probably planted in the mid nineteenth century. It was obviously cold hardy, disease resistant, vigorous and guaranteed to flourish in our area.

Since then, we often go out for a drive in the car in mid- to late June exploring the local countryside. We have found antique roses growing in roadside ditches, at the edge of a forest that has overtaken a farm field, in rural cemeteries, and around farm houses- inhabited as well as abandoned. It’s one of my favorite things to do on Father’s Day.

I always bring along a good garden spade, pruning shears, (see my posting on favorite garden tools), a cooler with ice, water, newspaper or paper towels, lots of plastic bags and plant markers. In digging up runners, be sure to get as much root as possible. Wrap the roots in wet newspaper or paper towels. Put them in plastic bags. Old grocery bags work well. Place them carefully in the cooler. You don’t want the plants to wilt in the heat and sun. You can also take cuttings. More about that in a future posting. Be respectful of the site. Don’t be greedy. Leave enough of the rose for it to continue to grow. Don’t leave a mess. On the plant tag, note the location and date, so you can refer others to that site or find it again. If the rose you want to collect is in the yard of someone’s farmhouse, knock on the door and ask for permission. Tell them of your love of old roses. I have never been told that I couldn’t get a piece of an old rose. What I often did get in addition to the rose was the story associated with it- who grew it, how long it had been there, etc.

Upon returning home, pot up the runners or cuttings. Grow them on in a cool, shady spot until they have established themselves. At that point, you may plant them out. Keying them out can be quite the challenge. There are many great books on old roses, as well as organizations that promote old roses ( A visit to a garden of historic roses will help as well. I have collected gallicas, albas, centifolias, mosses and Scots roses here in the Finger Lakes region and identified many of them.

Once your rustled rose has established itself, do share it with others. They are meant to be “pass-along plants.” You are helping preserve the horticultural history of your area. I have occasionally come back to a collecting site the following year, only to find that the roses are gone due to road work, bulldozers, development of house sites, or the overzealous use of weed wackers in a cemetery. What a tragedy when a rose that was planted at someone’s grave many years ago is eliminated in an effort to neaten things up.

Rose rustling sure beats going to your local big box for roses! Give it a try and tell me what you have found.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Scots Roses

As high rose tide begins to wane, I have started to look at the incredible photos taken by my friends, Alex and Aurora Solla. I was struck by the beauty of the Scots roses. One rarely sees these in gardens anymore, although they were touted by Gertrude Jekyll, in her book “Roses for English Gardens.” These roses have been grown since at least the 1700s and are often found around cellar holes on abandoned farmsteads or rural cemeteries.

My first encounter with Scots roses was in a cow pasture at the Finger Lakes National Forest in Hector, NY between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. They had formed a thicket near an old farm house site. The farms here date back to 1790 when soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War were awarded tracts of land in payment for their services. These parcels were one mile square. The roads that formed their boundaries are still there today. Many of these farms were abandoned between the 1890s and the Great Depression, when they were purchased by the Federal Government. The roses that remain in these fields have been flourishing untended for at least 100 years!

Scots roses are hybrids of Rosa spinosissima, which had been called Rosa pimpinellifolia. These roses are single (5 petals) and found in white, yellow or pink. Scots roses, though once blooming, are among the first roses to bloom. Here in Ithaca, NY, they start to bloom in May- a welcome sight after a long winter. Their fragrance is a mix of tea rose and citrus. They set shiny currant-like hips that are chocolate brown or maroon in color. Their leaves are very small with 7-11 serrated leaflets. Their stems are covered in many short prickles/bristles. This species grows from three to five feet tall and sucker readily.

The first mention of these roses for garden use was by Robert Brown of Perth, Scotland in 1793. He offered eight double flowered varieties. By 1810, Robert Austin of Glasgow offered over 100 varieties. These roses were at the peak of their popularity from about 1820-1840 after which they were superseded by larger flowered and repeat flowering roses. In 1848, William Paul listed only 75 varieties. In 1936, Edward Bunyard listed 36 varieties. In 1965 McFarland listed only 15. While the names are lost, many more survive in gardens- both cultivated and abandoned.

Most of the Scots roses are known more by a description of their form and color rather than by name. And so, they may be called single/semi-double/double + white/yellow/blush/red/ marbled/two colored/dark colored. Mary McMurtrie wrote and illustrated a beautiful book of them, “Scots Roses of Hedgerows, and Wild Gardens.” It was first published in 1998 by Garden Art Press.

While some of the ones I have are known, named varieties, most of them have been collected/rustled on farms and cemeteries. They are as precious if not more so than the named ones to me.

The next installment on this blog will focus on rose rustling. I was just out on Father's Day with my son and wife collecting some old roses in Hammond Hill State Forest. This is the best time of year in central NY to do this.