The Texas Rose Rustlers

They went in search of the vehicle of fragrance, and found adventure and companionship.

There are plenty of ways to take an interest in old roses. You can zero in on them botanically, or you can fit their stories into the history of your favorite place, or you can simply appreciate the way they act in the landscape. All these approaches have their proponents -- have had, in fact, almost since old roses were new.

But my own attraction to old roses -- and the act of rustling -- began more in the spirit of plunder. Searching out, digging up, rooting, trading or otherwise taking plants is closely related to thrift-shopping and junking, two sports I play passionately.

I picked Texas for my old rose pilgrimage because Texas is where the art of rustling was invented. The original Texas Rose Rustlers went deep into the province of old ladies, cut a wide swath around the fussiness and classification of the rose world, and found adventure.

At a cafe on the way to the Antique Rose Emporium in Independence, I fell into a greasy reverie -- fried eggs, white toast, home fries, bacon and all that good bad food -- while watching a grizzled short-order cook who had a Marlboro hanging from the corner of her mouth. Two waitresses lounged at opposite ends of the counter. At the tables, people were integrated: half and half, black and white. The pace was slow, verging on tropical.

Back on the road, the heat came at me in a cloud. Crossing the Washington County line took me into a very old part of Texas, the actual headquarters of the Republic during the ten years (1836-1846) when Texas was its own little nation. They were exciting years, and Texans are not about to forget them. Washington County is full of old buildings done up as stores for tourists, merchants selling ducks with ribbons around their necks, historic cheese graters and constipation remedies left behind by ordinary people of long ago. Restorations are everywhere.

The Antique Rose Emporium (A.R.E.) has four historically correct log cabins on its five-acre grounds, each of them covered with climbing roses, which clamber aggressively into windows, up telephone poles and over arches. In between the roses are meadows, ponds, winding stone pathways and perennial beds, all oversized and run-down on purpose. It looks as if some very energetic but slightly wild Texan of the Republican period had gone crazy at the local nursery and then died, leaving all his plantings to naturalize however they pleased.

The fact that what you see here you can grow at home is what has made Mike Shoup and his Antique Rose Emporium such a success. The established old rose breeders have been mailing catalogs to the initiated for decades, but if you don't already know roses inside and out, getting through the botanical descriptions and pen-and-ink drawings can be intimidating. So Mike Shoup set up his empire as a place where neophytes could find guidance. Every rose in his vast display gardens has at least a paragraph of simple information attached to it, and each narrow flagstone path leads to a sort of rose diorama. The A.R.E. catalog is full of color photographs and how-to. Best of all, no matter how stunning the rose, Mike won't carry it if it's temperamental.

The approach works. The A.R.E. is currently the country's largest grower of "own root" roses -- ungrafted old garden roses are generally thought to be more authentic. His staff -- which once consisted of himself, his wife and a propagation expert -- now numbers 30, all of whom stand ready to answer questions, no matter how stupid.

All this leaves Mike little time for rustling roses -- unless a TV crew is on hand to record him doing it. Still, he never seems to mind the open-ended discussions of roses into which he's dragged almost daily. To him, talking roses is no more strenuous than gossiping about an eccentric relative. (Like most old rose people, he sees the flowers as almost human. "I have favorites," he told me, "but it wouldn't be fair to the others if I named them.") And then there's always the chance someone will know a rose he hasn't met yet. His best sources, he told me, are older people he encounters on the A.R.E. pathways, lost in memory.

"What it is, is the vehicle of fragrance," Mike said. "Our older customers are really keyed in by it. We find them with tears welling up in their eyes. They tell me, 'I haven't smelled that smell since I was a small child, running in my grandpa's yard.' "

As Mike and I walked through the acres of roses, I tried to find a scent that moved me. No ghosts rose from my memory, but I was struck by the way fragrances curled out onto the paths and drew me in. Nothing smelled sweet and flowery, but there were notes of lemon, apple and even what I later found out was the smell of fresh tea leaves. At one point, a very French, very overpowering smell almost made me dizzy. I can only describe it as boudoir.

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