The News From 2Dits Farm: Heirloom Roses

Damask roeI met a group of friends for dinner recently, during which some contraband changed hands. “I’ve brought the items I emailed you about,” the true gardener among us said to me. “They’re out in the car. The newspaper’s damp–they’ll be all right.”

I took another forkful of salad. “Where did you get them?”

My friend leaned across the table and lowered her voice. “I rustled them.”


Pleased at my appreciation for her derring-do, she smiled and sat back. “It was years ago, from an abandoned farm in Appleton,” she told me modestly. “One’s an Alba, the other is a Damask.”

Once dinner was over, we moved the two pots from her car to mine, and I drove home with my first two antique roses. Depending on how you look at it, I was either guilty of receiving pilfered goods, or a participant in the growing movement to save heritage species by propagating them.

I’ve never gone rose rustling, though I’ve often thought about doing so when the scent of roses along my morning walk reminds me that any day now the fellow from the town garage will come along with his sickle-bar mower and shave the roadside margins to six inches high. A lot of wild roses fall to that mower every year, and I always berate myself for not getting to them in time. None are rare or endangered species, but as people clear their land for building or for lawns, there are fewer and fewer places where the plants that once were common in farm women’s gardens can now be found.

rose hips teaOld cemeteries are supposed to be good places for rustling, too, since often a cutting of an especially loved rose was planted to mark a grave. As these plants had to survive with no pampering, they had to be tough as nails and beautiful as well. Given the kind of winters we have here, hardiness is a prime consideration for any rose we might want to grow in our gardens, which is one reason old roses are making a resurgence in home landscaping. While it’s true that most antique varieties bloom only once and therefore aren’t as attractive to some people as modern teas or floribundas, they are generally hardier and can grow into a bigger bush. An added allure is that most heritage roses have a powerful scent, a trait which is altogether missing in some modern varieties. Too, many of the heritage types–rugosas, for instance–form hips after the petals fall, and these fruits are rich in vitamins C and A. In fact, I have read that during WWII, the British government encouraged the production of rose hip syrup as a replacement for the citrus fruits the island couldn’t get during the war. Rose hip jelly, tea, and wine are other popular ways to enjoy the healthful fruits.

Probably the easiest way of collecting old roses is by digging up a sucker or two from an overgrown bush. Many of these older shrub roses spread by underground runners, and it’s fairly straightforward to dig up a healthy shoot, being sure to get some good roots and the surrounding soil to transport home. Take a little care with compost and watering until the new plant is established, and the rose will adjust nicely.

The second method of getting your own heritage roses is to take cuttings from the parent rose plant and propagate them, providing enough humidity until the twig sends out roots, carefully avoiding both dehydrating the cutting and providing too much moisture so that it rots. I confess I have never had any luck in taking cuttings of any plant, much less roses, but I know many people routinely propagate their garden prizes. My hat’s off to them, because that is one gardening skill I just can’t conquer. It became particularly galling when I learned that pioneer women often took cuttings from a rose bush that had meant much to them back home and transported these shoots by sticking them in a potato. Apparently the moisture and nutrients in the spud encouraged the cutting to form roots, and by the time the Conestoga got where it was going, the rose was ready to plant at the new homestead. The one time I tried this, all I got was a rotten, slimy potato and a blackened rose shoot. Fearing that my garden might become the epicenter of a new potato famine, I burned the whole mess. To my knowledge, no spores escaped. (If you read that they did, it’s #fakenewz. No, that is not a potato-rose mutant in my backyard, nothing to see here, folks, move on.)

My new Old Roses look happy, and I think they’re settling in well. Next June when they blossom, I’ll be thanking my friend all over again for gifting them to me, and thinking kindly, too, of the woman on that farm in Appleton who grew them in her dooryard and perhaps smiled when the scent of them drifted in through the kitchen window while she was doing the dishes.

Thank you, ma’am.



The News From 2Dits Farm: Heirloom Roses — 3 Comments

  1. Diaries from pioneer women in Oregon site a tale. Dr. John McLoughlin, the father of Oregon, routinely helped the early pioneers get started in their new home. One family had two sickly children. The mother bemoaned that her daughter Joshephine pined for the scent of roses, and wished for nothing more than to smell a rose once more before dying. Dr. McLoughlin gave the grieving mother a cutting from one of his roses to plant outside the girl’s window. She eventually did die (probably tuberculosis) and the parents transplanted Josephine’s rose to the foot of her grave.

    Fast forward 150 years. The curator of the McLoughlin House Museum read the diary and went looking for Joshephine’s grave in the pioneer cemetery. She found the grave and a single spindly shoot on a huge root boll. Much to her horror, the grounds keeper approached with a riding lawnmower. She stood atop that single shoot and refuse to let him mow the grass. The she went on a mission and got the Sons and Daughters of Oregon Pioneers to put up a small wrought iron fence around the rose. No more mowing. Now, 20 years later the museum and the pioneer organization sell cuttings of Josephine’s rose along with a chapbook of the story as an annual fundraiser.

    And the rose bush now thrives and has outgrown the original fence to spill over onto the grave so that Josephine can smell the roses into eternity.

  2. In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher is an excellent book on the topic.