A Texas garden center proves that diverse, easy-to-care-for antique rose varieties are anything but old-fashioned.
The rose has a prickly reputation, believed by many to be fussy, demanding and standoffish. To dispel that nonsense, one has only to stroll through one of the two Antique Rose Emporiums in Texas. Here, hundreds of old roses romp through the many display gardens, carefree as daisies, mingling gracefully with herbs, grasses and native plants in a variety of lush settings.
There are two Antique Rose Emporiums: the original in the small town of Independence, an hour or so west of Houston, and the newest one in San Antonio. These two garden centers encompass very different styles in their extensive display gardens, but both settings beautifully showcase roses in the landscape.
“Old roses are the perfect garden plant,” owner Mike Shoup says. “They deserve their chance to be displayed artistically, with creativity, whimsy and in interesting combinations — not just planted in rows and rectangles.”
These antique roses grow on their own roots, unlike many modern hybrids, which are grafted. They are vigorous, long-lived, tough plants, surviving even the extreme heat and humidity of the Texas landscape. They have enough pest and disease resistance to thrive in the organic gardens of the Antique Rose
Emporium; indeed, many have survived in the wild on nothing but neglect for decades. They offer a wide range of flower colors, but generally are softer and more muted than the vibrant, sometimes even gaudy hues of modern tea roses. And, most important of all, these roses have fragrance.
“Fragrance is so important — it’s the soul and emotion of the plant. And it provides our emotional tie to the plant, through memory,” Shoup says.
Thirty years ago, a fresh-out-of-graduate-school Shoup started a nursery business supplying woody ornamentals to the landscape industry and retail garden centers in central Texas. When he got bored with the common landscape plants, he began looking for alternative native plants that could provide landscapers with some variety.
That’s when he stumbled across roses, growing and even thriving in abandoned, neglected sites, all but forgotten. Taking cuttings during rose-rustling forays to old homesteads and cemeteries, as well as from neighbors and other gardeners, Shoup began propagating and evaluating these old “found” roses, some of which date back to early pioneer days. It was the beginning of his longstanding love affair with the flowers, and also the beginning of the Antique Rose Emporium. It became his cause to spread the word about this diverse group of plants, which are so much more versatile in the landscape than the pampered modern hybrid tea rose.
While national mail-order and wholesale orders established the core of his business, the display gardens and retail business in little, out-of-the-way historic Independence (whose address is in Brenham, Texas, only because that’s the closest post office) grew over time into a spectacle that draws more and more visitors each year from around the state and beyond.
In 1985, Shoup started the display gardens in Independence as a cottage garden and small formal planting around a restored 1855 settler’s stone kitchen. Today, the garden’s wonderful mix of roses — along with perennials, grasses, even fruits and vegetables — covers about 8 acres.
And everywhere, there are herbs — bright green parsley borders, stately rosemary shrubbery, purple coneflowers and spiky alliums, groundcovers of thymes and oreganos. “Herbs are the very best companions for roses,” Shoup says. They add fragrance, texture and color in the garden the same way they do in cooking, he says.
Fences, trellises, gazebos, walkways, stonework, benches and other hardscaping encourage visitors to wander at their own pace, and establish different garden “rooms” for the various themed gardens: a restful water garden, a Beatrix Potter garden for children, a romantic garden and walkway to a chapel where weddings are often held, a maze, a kitchen garden and lush planting around a greenhouse. Along with its many roses, the Antique Rose Emporium sells many of the other plants found in these gardens, and to see them all in mature garden settings is inspiring.
The 20-acre Antique Rose Emporium in San Antonio opened seven years ago, has a completely different style and interpretation, as it takes its inspiration from the Southwestern landscape. It combines roses with cacti, agaves, yuccas and many other succulents and native plants found in this region. To see roses climb the adobe walls and share Hispanic courtyard space with massive cactus in this Old West setting is a delight and a surprise.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is now a freelance writer, editor and rose lover in Austin, Texas.
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