How to Rustle Roses
Forget those old Western movies. “Rose rustlers” aren’t cowboys who steal cattle, says Mike Shoup, owner of the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas. They’re actually on a search and rescue mission for lost and forgotten roses.
Rustlers are gardeners who love old roses—sometimes called antiques or heirlooms. They visit abandoned homesteads, old farms and cemeteries and all sorts of neighborhoods on a quest to save and preserve roses we can’t buy anymore.
Many old roses are no longer available commercially because newer, more popular hybrids have crowded them out of the marketplace—and it’s true that they don't have the same characteristics as most of today's modern roses.
Instead of producing erect canes for cutting, topped by perfectly formed buds and blooms, antiques often have sprawling growth habits. Some bloom just once each growing season instead of repeatedly. Others become very large and take up a lot of room in the landscape.
But antique roses have plenty of other virtues. Because they’ve survived without human care for long periods of time, they’ve adapted to the climate and soil they’ve grown in. They rarely need spraying or fertilizing and resist many pests and diseases. They can be pruned hard and recover nicely.
In short, most are simply easier to grow and maintain than modern roses.
Rustlers also grow antiques for their history and nostalgic value. They’re living connections to the past, like the pioneer roses carried by early settlers on the Oregon Trail as they made they way into the American West.
Shoup values the rich fragrance of old roses. “The scents take you back in time. Modern roses have been bred until they don’t have a lot of fragrance.”
He also appreciates their many uses. “These plants aren’t like hybrid teas. They’re not all little soldiers that you put into those rectangular prisons we call rose gardens. Antique roses have different personalities that beg you to use them in many different ways. They can ramble on a fence or you can plant them with other kinds of plants.”
Rustling a rose is easy, but before you begin, Shoup stresses you should always ask for permission to enter a property and take cuttings. That won’t always be possible if, for example, you want to propagate a rose you’ve found growing along a lonely road, almost swallowed up in a thicket of other plants.
Other antique roses grow in old cemeteries, where they were once planted to honor a loved one. “Many old cemeteries don’t have anybody taking care of them. They’re just maintained by community volunteers.” Cemeteries that are staffed and manicured probably won't have old roses growing in them anyway, he notes. “Most have been groomed out for lawns.”
Once you’ve gotten permission (or determined that it’s safe to proceed without it), make sure you’re dealing with a healthy plant, Shoup says. Then take 3- to 4-inch cuttings with a few leaves attached to them.
“Be diligent and honest in the way you handle the plants. It’s not about stealing. It’s about rescuing a plant and promoting its success over time.”
Never dig up or completely remove an old rose, he says. If you find a plant that’s struggling to survive, help it by removing any weeds and debris around it. The idea is to help the rose rise above any competitors in its space, so it can keep growing. By propagating cuttings, you’re also saving its genetics to pass on to the next generation of gardeners.
Shoup keeps a pair of pruners with him all the time, so he can take cuttings when he finds an old plant. “You also need some paper towels that you can moisten with ice or water from a water bottle."
Wrap the cutting in the moistened paper towel, he says, and put it in a clear plastic sandwich bag. When you get home, fill a clear, quart-size plastic bag 1/3 full of good quality potting soil.
“You need good drainage," he says. “The soil should be wet but not soggy, so you can squeeze a handful and it won’t drip, but it’ll leave your hand moist. Most people kill roses with too much water. Air circulation is very important, too.”
Stick the cutting into the soil in the bag, and zip it to make a terrarium with high humidity for your cutting. About 1 1/2 inches of the cutting should be in the soil.
Keep the bag in an east-facing window so it gets bright light, but not a lot of heat. Use a pie plate under the bag, he says, to avoid damaging your windowsill. Don't let the bag overheat in the afternoon sun.
In 3 to 4 weeks, a mass of white roots should form. Then it’s time to transfer the rooted cutting to a gallon pot. Water it and keep it on a porch or in another partially shaded location. It will need time to acclimate to the outdoors before going into direct sun. If the weather is cold, Shoup recommends putting the young plant in a greenhouse.
The rose will be ready to plant in your garden in 2 or 3 months, or, if it’s early spring, as soon as good roots have formed.
You don’t need to fertilize antique roses, Shoup says. "Mother Nature fertilizes on her own with leaves, bark and other things that fall to the ground and decay. Just mix good compost into your existing soil and then mulch around the plant with bark. Mimic Mother Nature.”
“There are no hard rules on watering,” he says. “Just drench the plant when you’re transplanting so water surrounds the entire area, the way it would in a thunderstorm. Then let the ground dry out some, so the roots will be encouraged to grow deeper. Come back in a week or so and if it looks dry, water again.”
“Once you get old roses going in your yard for a year, turn your back on them, “ he advises. “That’s what so wonderful—they don’t need a fussy spraying and pruning schedule like modern roses. Just remember, they’re not perfect, plastic plants, so their performance will ebb and flow."