The Rustlers had strict rules about what they collected, how it was done, and always asked permission whenever possible. When not possible, they made sure to leave the rose bushes in better condition than found by pruning and cutting out any deadwood. They never harmed the plants. In fact, The Rustlers grew new roses from the cuttings they'd taken.
The term "rustler" traces its origins to the early 1880's during the period of the Texas longhorn cattle drives. The dictionary offers this alternate definition, "one who forages or who obtains something through one’s own exertions". This group of rustlers is known for giving rather than taking.
But they didn't want just any roses. The group eventually became known for collecting Old Garden Roses (OGRs) that had escaped gardens and survived and thrived in harsh conditions. These were not the fancy hybrid tea roses. OGRs bloomed through drought and withstood hard freezes, didn't need pruning, and did not succumb easily to diseases like black spot or mildew. They were tough. Left on their own, they spread over the ground and climbed trees to form impenetrable thorny hedges as high as houses.
Pam Puryear (1943–2005) was a self-described eccentric schoolteacher, and Margaret Sharp (1918–1998), founder of the Houston Rose Society and master rose judge for the American Rose Society, were the original Rose Rustlers. Driving a country road in East Texas in 1969, Pam discovered two old rose bushes thriving without care at a log house built in 1822 and uninhabited since 1940. Pam dug the plants, gave one to the property owner, and planted the other at her home where it grew into a huge hedge. She later discovered that it was ‘Old Blush’, a China rose thought to be the first Asian rose cultivar to reach Europe. The rose probably made its way to Texas with early settlers. She subsequently joined the Houston Rose Society and met Margaret. Pam knew the Texas back roads and Margaret knew about horticulture. Together they began searching for old roses in East Central Texas where early settlement had taken place.
About that time, TAMU horticulture professor, Dr. William Welch, an expert on Southern roses, was scouring roads for low-maintenance plants suitable for the Texas landscape. Nurseryman Mike Shoup had begun growing Texas natives. In doing his own searches of roadsides, ditches and vacant lots, he had also discovered roses growing wild with no human intervention. Along with Bill, Mike co-founded the Antique Rose Emporium as a mail-order nursery in 1982 and together they reintroduced OGRs to the public. Subsequently, the four joined forces.
(photo: 'Lady Hillingdon')
Mike began propagating and growing many of the varieties the Rose Rustlers discovered. Since the heritage was often unknown (a few still remain unknown), they were given temporary names based on where they were found or names of the people who shared the cuttings, e.g.: 'Highway 290 Pink Buttons', 'Mary Minor', 'Hole', and 'Baptist Manse'.
With the deaths of Margaret and Pam, much of the folklore surrounding the The Texas Rose Rustlers is gone. However, the group is still very active. Now any rustling that occurs is usually done by small teams or individuals using a strict rustler etiquette, and group members also spend time caring for neglected roses growing in public places. They prune, weed, occasionally fertilize and take cuttings if the rose is obviously abandoned and always ask permission if the rose is in a private yard.
What is an Old Garden Rose?
An Old Garden Rose is a rose that existed before the year 1867. They generally fall into two subclasses: Antique Roses and Old Roses. Old Roses are those that were found in Europe before the late 1700's. Antique Roses are those that can trace part of their ancestry back to Rosa Chinensis (The China Rose), the first true repeat-blooming rose, which was introduced in Europe around 1792. For the most part, Old Garden Roses do not repeat bloom whereas Antique Roses generally do because of the use of R. Chinensis in breeding programs. With the ability for repeat bloom, roses changed forever and modern roses were introduced.
(top image: OGR Rosa Alba Semi-plena (The White Rose of York) in my kitchen. I and a friend found it down an old country road on an abandoned property in Clarksville, TN.)