(An earlier version of this post first appeared June 2, 2019)
In late May and early June ‘Harison’s Yellow’ steals the show in the Elizabeth Park rose garden where it forms a radiant, almost forsythia-like hedge along the western entrance to the garden. To honor this storied rose, the park’s consulting rosarian, Stephen Scanniello, has generously allowed us to reprint a chapter from his book, A Rose by Any Name.
Brenner, Douglas, and Stephen Scanniello. A Rose by Any Name. Chapter 47. Robert Hale, 2010.
What many Texans cherish as their yellow rose hails from the wide open spaces of—hold your hat—New York City. George Folliott Harison, a reclusive bachelor lawyer, created this spring bloomer in the early 1830s, either on his family’s Manhattan estate, Mount Sinai, in a then semirural area bounded by present-day Eighth and Ninth Avenues between 30th and 31st Streets, or in the “Amateur’s Garden” he established ten blocks north of there around 1833. His property lay in the countryside west of the area around present-day Times Square that was a center for commercial nurseries. In his private greenhouse, Harison bred new varieties of roses as well as other plants, such as Camellia japonica var. ‘Harrisoni’ [sic].
Exactly how Harison (1776-1846) produced his namesake rose is a mystery, for he kept no records of his work. A visitor to his country place in March 1837 describes a haphazard modus operandi: “…Mr. Harrison [sic] appears to practice hybridization without any regard to the mixing of two particular sorts to produce an intermediate variety; but whenever a flower opens on plants that generally produce seed, the stigmas are impregnated with the pollen of some sort in order to fertilize them.” Whatever his technique, he struck gold with the shrub rose that became known as ‘Harrison’s Yellow’, the first rose of that color ever created in the United States. Another mystery surrounds the origin of the curious spelling ‘Harison’s Yellow’, invariably used now. In all accounts from the 1830s, the names of both the breeder and his rose have a double “r”, although a will filed by Harison’s father, Richard, consistently gives his name with a single “r.” This was the spelling handed down in the family since patriarch Francis Harison, an English colonist, settled in New York in 1708.
The rose went on sale in 1835—as ‘Harrison’s Yellow’—at the Prince nursery in Flushing, New York, an establishment founded almost a century earlier. William Prince propagated the plants from one of Harison’s seedlings, for which he had traded a valuable Camellia aitoni. Prince’s catalog listed the rose as a “superb double yellow [that] blooms freely and profusely—$2,” a high-ticket item, given that most of the firm’s other roses then sold for fifty cents apiece. The Manhattan nurseryman and florist Thomas Hogg also sold specimens of this variety, which a colleague shipped to England as “Hogg’s yellow American rose.”
In the United States, ‘Harrison’s Yellow’ soon became the most popular and most traveled hybrid of its day. Homesteaders headed for new territories out west made room for the shrub in jam-packed Conestoga wagons. Like the pieces of fancy china they tucked into flour barrels, the precious bushes would help to civilize their frontier homes. Many of these transplants ended up in Texas, where settlers’ descendants came to believe that the rose they grew up with was a regional native—the same Yellow Rose of Texas immortalized in the song with that title. Anyone who listens to the words of the song—either nineteenth-century minstrel-show versions or the bowdlerized lyrics of Mitch Miller’s 1955 arrangement—realizes that the “rose” it celebrates is a woman, not a flower.
In the same year that the Prince Nursery started selling ‘Harrison’s Yellow’, Emily D. West, a freeborn African American, sailed from Connecticut, her home state, to the Mexican colony of Texas. She had contracted with the entrepreneur James Morgan to work as a servant in the town of New Washington, which soon became engulfed in the revolution for Texan independence from Mexico. On April 18, 1836, the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna invaded the settlement, only to find that nearly all of its American-born citizens had fled. Scanty evidence suggests, however, that Emily may have been taken prisoner. All sorts of racy tales have sprung up around her whereabouts and activities during the next few days, but only hearsay supports these legends.
One account relates that the revolutionary leader Sam Houston, spying on the Mexican campsite from a nearby tree on the morning of April 21, spotted a “slave girl” fixing a champagne breakfast for Santa Anna. That afternoon, the story continues, while Texian troops routed the Mexican army, their commander skedaddled off the battlefield wearing nothing but underwear and a pair of slippers. Back in the tent, with the rest of his clothes, was Emily West, who had heroically distracted the general to give her countrymen time to stage a surprise attack.
West departed for New York, in 1837, never to be heard of again—except, perhaps, in verse and lyrics. The earliest known title for to the folk tune we know as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” appears to have been “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point,” first published as sheet music in 1858. West has been described as a woman of mixed race, a mulatto, which means she may have had the light complexion known colloquially as “yellow.” The 1955 reprise muffled racial overtones by deleting the darky and de-colorizing his beloved as “the sweetest little rosebud,/That Texas ever knew….”
Its murky history notwithstanding, a yellow rose remains a token of Texan pride. Hotels, nightclubs, and dance groups flourish the flower in their names or logos. The fraternal order of the Knights of the Yellow Rose, whose members pin yellow rose insignia to their lapels, convene every April on the site of Santa Anna’s camp, to pay tribute to Emily West. In celebration of Texas independence, the Dallas Area Historical Rose Society’s newsletter, The Yellow Rose, annually features a yellow rose on the cover of its spring issue. Sometimes that flower is ‘Harison’s Yellow’, but, as DAHRS officials explain cheerfully, just about any yellow rose will do.