Mike Shoup never liked roses when he was in the nursery business. His old business, Containerized Plant Nursery, specialized in the common landscape plants everyone was growing. Mike thought of roses as plants that require a lot of care to survive in Texas; they just weren't worth growing.
When the oil crisis of the early 1980s hit and the Texas economy went south, he knew if he wanted to stay in business he'd have to find a specialty niche. "I started propagating native plants that other larger nurseries ignored, such as salvias and penstemons. Then I noticed all these wild roses growing in abandoned fields, cellar holes, and cemeteries," he says. Unlike his experience with hybrid tea roses, here were large, shrub-like plants, covered with uniquely shaped, fragrant blossoms thriving with no care at all. He knew he'd found the niche he was searching for and created the Antique Rose Emporium Nursery, specializing in heirloom roses. He quickly learned these roses have all the attributes of a carefree landscape plant. They are generally disease resistant, can stand vagaries in the weather, and the flowers have a diversity of colors and forms.
Soon after starting his nursery, Mike hooked up with a hobby rose collecting club called the Texas Rose Rustlers. Their goal is to collect and document the wild roses that can be found growing all around Texas. Many of these are cultivated varieties from the retail trade that have escaped into the wild. Some date back to the 1800s. Mike knew if they could survive disease, heat, drought, and insects on their own for all those years, they must be tough.
With his nursery thriving since the 1980s, Mike now has people sending him antique rose varieties with the hope he will identify, propagate, and save them. Sometimes it's a rose that has been passed down from generation to generation with a colorful history, such as the 'Louis Philippe'. Its story begins with Teresa Meyer, a neighbor in Brenham, Texas, who is a self-taught gardener with a variety of plants around her house. One rose, given to her by her mother, particularly caught Mike's eye one day. It was a 4- to 5-foot-tall, red double rose with white streaks in the flowers. Mike took cuttings and after some research found 'Louis Philippe' was a China rose given to Lorenzo De Zavala when he was the Republic of Texas' ambassador to France in the 1830s and 1840s. It had obviously escaped into the wild and had somehow ended up in the hands of Teresa's mother.
If the true identity of a rose hasn't been uncovered, it's called a 'found' rose. A good example is 'Maggie', a red shrub rose. This rose was sent to Mike from a man in Louisiana. He called it 'Maggie' after his mother-in-law. Mike happened to find out that in Bermuda the same rose grows and they call it 'Pacifica'. But neither name is the original, so Mike's sticking with 'Maggie'.
The key to appreciating antique roses is not to grow them like roses. Grow them like landscape shrubs. "We have 8 acres of demonstration gardens set up around our store to show people how to use these plants in the landscape," says Mike. "We don't have rose gardens, we have gardens with roses."
Mike even is experimenting with breeding his own roses. He's been crossing antique and modern varieties to create large-flowered, repeat-blooming roses that still have the tough traits of antique roses. His new group is called the Pioneer series, named after early Texan plant pioneers. One of the best is 'Thomas Affleck', an upright 4-foot-tall shrub with magenta pink, 4-inch-diameter, repeat-blooming flowers.
Through Mike's efforts any old rose worth its salt will find life again in the retail trade. It's all about fulfilling his mission of searching and rescuing old forgotten roses.
Visit the Antique Rose Emporium Web site at www.antiqueroseemporium.com.
Article published on September 9, 2004.