When I left Connecticut for Texas this January I hoped for warmer weather, but I didn’t expect to find roses in full bloom. After all, my destination—Brenham, Texas to be exact—does have a winter, albeit a shorter, gentler one than southern New England’s. This year, however, when I arrived on January 8th, I was greeted by roses in near-peak display. Large yellow noisettes drooped across an archway. Fragrant pink Chinas scrambled over a pergola and into the sprawling limbs of a southern live oak. According to the local news, Central Texas was having its warmest December and January since 1907, coaxing a once-in-a-lifetime January flush out of the roses. While this winter bloom may bode badly for the fate of the climate, it sure made my trip more beautiful.
I chose Brenham because it is home to grower and retailer, The Antique Rose Emporium, which supplies Elizabeth Park with heirloom roses. As a rose gardener at Elizabeth Park, I have about a month and a half of downtime between finishing one season and preparing for the next, so I decided to use my break this year to see how they do things in Texas.
The company’s founder, Mike Shoup, generously agreed to take me under his wing for two weeks. Early in his career, as a Texas nurseryman in the late 1970s, Mike avoided roses due to their fussy reputation. At the time, hybrid tea roses—cherished for their competition-worthy blossoms but lacking in vigor or disease-resistance—dominated the industry. His opinion of roses improved though when he came into contact with a heartier sort of rose while on outings to gather native plants for his nursery. Along Texas back-roads he encountered old roses blooming among aging gravestones and creeping through country homesteads. Unlike the contemporary hybrid teas, which required ideal growing conditions and regular pesticide applications to look their best, these roses had been thriving for decades, sometimes centuries, without care of any sort. Many of them had originally been brought to the new world by European colonists, then west by pioneers, their provenance forgotten until being rediscovered by a cohort of plant-gathering enthusiasts known as the Rose Rustlers.
Mike took cuttings from the roses he found, some of which he began to propagate and sell in pots. Demand for antique roses grew over the 1980s, and so Mike started The Antique Rose Emporium, dedicating his life’s work to the promotion and celebration of heritage roses.
Nearly 40 years later, Mike’s love of carefree old roses still informs every aspect of Antique Rose Emporium’s operations. In their retail and mail-order business, the company sells only heritage and modern rose cultivars proven to flourish without fuss. In their display gardens, workers tend minimally-pruned shrubs in meandering mixed borders and encourage them up onto an array of unusual climbing structures—a far cry from the manicured plots of a traditional, rectilinear rose garden. Their gardeners avoid synthetic pesticides, opting instead for compost tea, a natural brew that improves plant health by boosting beneficial microbial activity on foliage and in soil.
In addition to promoting old roses, The Antique Rose Emporium breeds new roses with the goal of combining the best qualities of antique varieties—toughness, fragrance, unusual blooms or architecture—with those of modern, repeat-flowering cultivars.
Their breeding program got a boost a few years ago when Mike hired Texas A&M graduate student, Andrew Barocco, as the company’s full-time breeder. Andrew’s breeding greenhouse feels vaguely like a mad scientist’s laboratory. One afternoon, surrounded by countless tagged and labeled rose cuttings as well as tomato- and chile pepper seedlings (Andrew breeds those as well), he explained his vision: Conventional breeding programs have typically only hybridized modern shrubs with other modern shrubs. This technique makes a good strategy for producing roses similar to existing best sellers but a bad one for creating truly new and unusual varieties. Andrew, in contrast, uses old garden roses and overlooked species roses (think R. glauca or R. rubiginosa) as well as modern shrubs in his breeding stock. The result, he hopes, will be new roses that possess not only tried and true traits such as beautiful, fragrant blossoms and disease-resistant foliage, but also unusual features such as, say, exfoliating bark, autumn colors, or mossy-textured buds. The Antique Rose Emporium will start releasing the first installment of Andrew’s new creations in 2020 with more to follow over future seasons.
After getting me acquainted with their breeding, propagation, and mail order operations, Mike Shoup took me down the road to the Antique Rose Emporium’s display garden, which also serves as their retail center. On arrival I immediately came down with a serious case of zone-8 climate envy. Many of the display garden’s finest roses—teas, noisettes, and Chinas—don’t tolerate the Connecticut winter. These varieties have it all: rich fragrance, disease-resistant foliage, and luxurious blossoms that bloom all season long. (Breeders if you’re listening, I am yet to satisfy my search for a true repeat-blooming climbing rose that grows over 15′ and doesn’t die back during a zone 6 winter, even without protection.)
My new favorite is ‘Rêve d’Or,’ a 19th-century noisette climber. In the Antique Rose Emporium display garden they have a row of ‘Rêve d’Or’ spectacularly trained over a rebar tunnel. Mike says that in summer its yellow blossoms fade to cream, but for my visit, the cool January air gave them a color I might call “corn on the cob.” I’m already scheming ways to grow the tender ‘Rêve d’Or’ at home in Connecticut; I’m hoping a spot tucked next to a chimney on the south face of a house might provide the shelter it needs to tolerate our winter.
Mike didn’t let me leave Texas without me putting in a little work first. I offered to help train climbing roses, expecting he might have me work on a modest, manageable climber. Instead he put me on a monster ‘Cecile Brunner’ that hadn’t been trained in years. We later figured out this Cecile had been planted in 1985, making her the same age as me! After two days spent removing deadwood, disentangling 20+ foot canes, and battling rotting cedar posts I think Cecile and I arrived at a good place.