What is rose rustling? It’s a term used to describe the process of collecting antique roses to propagate that are growing untended. This term was made popular in Thomas Christopher’s book, In Search of Lost Roses. This can be a solitary or group event.
Who rustles roses? Old rose addicts and history buffs.
When does one rustle roses? I have found it is best to do it at high rose tide, when the roses are in bloom so you can find the plants in the landscape.
Where does one rose rustle? Anywhere they may still be found growing- along roadsides, on abandoned farm sites, or in old, preferably untended cemeteries.
Why rustle roses? The goal is to preserve the roses originally grown in an area many years ago.
How does one rustle a rose? Well, that’s what this posting is all about.
Unlike mushroom collectors who guard the locations of their quarry, rose rustlers are more than willing to share the locations of their finds. If you don’t know any rose rustlers, though, all is not lost.
I came across my first antique roses walking with my wife through an old farm field. We came upon the cellar hole of a farmstead. Although the cellar hole was overgrown and not visible from the road, we noticed the pair of big old sugar maples standing sentinel, the overgrown lilacs, and drifts of daylily foliage. In the midst of this tangled mess, we saw some pink rose blossoms. These were not your typical garish hybrid tea type flower. They were flatter in shape and crowded with many petals of fragrant pink. Though the farm house was long gone (since at least the 1930s), the roses lived on. We collected some runners of those roses, being careful to leave most of the plants. We had found a Rosa gallica hybrid that was probably planted in the mid nineteenth century. It was obviously cold hardy, disease resistant, vigorous and guaranteed to flourish in our area.
Since then, we often go out for a drive in the car in mid- to late June exploring the local countryside. We have found antique roses growing in roadside ditches, at the edge of a forest that has overtaken a farm field, in rural cemeteries, and around farm houses- inhabited as well as abandoned. It’s one of my favorite things to do on Father’s Day.
I always bring along a good garden spade, pruning shears, (see my posting on favorite garden tools), a cooler with ice, water, newspaper or paper towels, lots of plastic bags and plant markers. In digging up runners, be sure to get as much root as possible. Wrap the roots in wet newspaper or paper towels. Put them in plastic bags. Old grocery bags work well. Place them carefully in the cooler. You don’t want the plants to wilt in the heat and sun. You can also take cuttings. More about that in a future posting. Be respectful of the site. Don’t be greedy. Leave enough of the rose for it to continue to grow. Don’t leave a mess. On the plant tag, note the location and date, so you can refer others to that site or find it again. If the rose you want to collect is in the yard of someone’s farmhouse, knock on the door and ask for permission. Tell them of your love of old roses. I have never been told that I couldn’t get a piece of an old rose. What I often did get in addition to the rose was the story associated with it- who grew it, how long it had been there, etc.
Upon returning home, pot up the runners or cuttings. Grow them on in a cool, shady spot until they have established themselves. At that point, you may plant them out. Keying them out can be quite the challenge. There are many great books on old roses, as well as organizations that promote old roses (www.heritagerosefoundation.org). A visit to a garden of historic roses will help as well. I have collected gallicas, albas, centifolias, mosses and Scots roses here in the Finger Lakes region and identified many of them.
Once your rustled rose has established itself, do share it with others. They are meant to be “pass-along plants.” You are helping preserve the horticultural history of your area. I have occasionally come back to a collecting site the following year, only to find that the roses are gone due to road work, bulldozers, development of house sites, or the overzealous use of weed wackers in a cemetery. What a tragedy when a rose that was planted at someone’s grave many years ago is eliminated in an effort to neaten things up.
Rose rustling sure beats going to your local big box for roses! Give it a try and tell me what you have found.