Rose Rustling: Rounding Up Old Roses
Years ago my mother took cuttings from a couple bushes on an old farm my uncle had purchased. You can see in the photo below that one of those roses was a fairly typical pink cabbage rose, the other a more unusual dusky type. Somebody told her that the latter was called the coffee rose. Although its flowers are certainly dark, they are more maroon than java-colored, and I haven't been able to find any heirloom with that name.
I located the dark rose pictured in the thumbnail on local Game Commission property, also near where a house had once stood. Its blooms were much smaller and more tightly formed than my mother's rose, and it's a good thing I took cuttings of it when I did. Although the bush was still large back then, it seems to have disappeared from its original location during the intervening years, crowded out by encroaching trees and brush. (The Game Commission, of course, actually prefers its land to return to the wild!)
The rose I grew from those cuttings, on the other hand, has since expanded widely in my garden. I've never discovered its true name either, so I just call it Elderberry Wine, as the man who last owned that property was called Eldy. I'm just spelling his name the way it sounded to me when I was a child, which is probably how a lot of old roses came up with their peculiar monikers too. Perhaps "coffee" was originally a family name like "Caffree" or something similar?
Taking just a few cuttings from old rose bushes shouldn't harm them, as pruning actually stimulates growth. Be sure to do it while they are blooming or immediately afterwards, however--which generally means June here in Zone 5. They root best then, and you don't want to be encouraging new growth late in the year when it's likely to get hit with a freeze..
Some of the purists out there prefer the old ways of rooting the roses too, such as dipping the cuttings in willow tea instead of rooting hormones. Although I must admit to employing the very modern Dip 'N Grow™, I have occasionally used my mother's method, which consists of sticking a cutting directly in the ground and placing an inverted glass jar over it. I've found that it's best, however, to add some kind of "hat" over the jar to shade the cutting a bit. The FedEx™ guy gave me a very peculiar look once, when he caught me gravely capping a line of inverted glass jars with Cool Whip™ containers!
I've also used another method that I discovered online, where both the cuttings and the soil in which you root them are kept humid inside large zip-type plastic bags. Although getting rose cuttings to root is not all that difficult, it can be a chore to keep the rabbits from eating them. The Peter Cottontails around here have a thing for rosebushes--especially young and tender ones. A majority of the heirlooms I've succeeded in rooting have gone down their gullets.
Fortunately, my sister occasionally has extras which she passes on to me once they grow large enough to survive the bunnies. You can see one of those here in the last two photos. Its blooms sometimes have lighter-colored edges, and it proves that own-root roses can be vigorous too, as it is crowding out that dark red grafted rose in front of it.
Many old roses can have sentimental value too, as one of those my sister rooted still grows on our great-grandparents' grave. Please don't delay getting those cuttings or suckers however. One of my aunts had quite a few old roses, and I vaguely recall that she gave me some cuttings years ago. Either I didn't properly know what to do with them yet, or that was one of those years of the rabbit! At any rate, I don't think any of them survived. I should have tried again, as she and my uncle are now gone, and the person who bought their property cleared off all the shrubs.
For an excellent book on the subject of rose rustling, read Thomas Christopher's In Search of Lost Roses. Keep in mind that most old roses in colder zones bloom on old wood and will only perform once a year. Although they put on quite a show at that time, a late frost can wipe out the majority of your flowers for that season. So I do grow more modern ever-blooming roses too!
Some people consider old roses ugly, simply because most of the hardy ones don't look like modern tea roses. Those heirlooms are also very susceptible to an old enemy that I'll be addressing shortly, the rose slug. But the old roses have a certain disheveled charm that makes them, in my opinion, just as beautiful as the more symmetrically-formed teas--if not more so!
Photos: The photos in this article are my own.
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