When it comes to antique roses, Maureen Detweiler tends to get a little evangelical.
“I’m kind of like a missionary,” she says. “And I have a lot of converts.”

To underscore her point, Detweiler gestures toward a yard across the street from her University area home, where a huge Natchitoches Noisette is decked out in pink blossoms. “My neighbor used to grow nothing but fruit and vegetables. But once I”—she pauses, looking for the right word—”influenced him, now he grows nothing but roses.”

Old Garden roses, to be precise, also known as heirloom or antique roses, and not to be confused with the “modern” roses favored by florists. These are flowers that have been cultivated for centuries—hardy plants that, unlike their modern cousins, require surprisingly little care and no chemical fertilizers or pest control measures. And February is the perfect time to get them growing.

An Old Garden rose is one that belongs to a class identified prior to 1867, including the China, Tea and Noisette varieties, which are particularly suited to our climate. They’re a common sight around Southeast Louisiana, growing in yards or untended in cemeteries and old home sites, legacies from past generations.

That’s what first appealed to Detweiler, one of the founding members of the New Orleans Old Garden Rose Society. “I was never a gardener, but I loved history,” she says. An article on antique roses piqued her interest. “I just fell in love with them,” she says. “They’re so beautiful, and they have this history. The idea that I can have the same roses in my garden that the Empress Josephine had in her garden is very appealing. It’s like owning a living antique.”

Old Garden roses make an excellent choice for gardeners who don’t have the time or desire to fuss over their plants, and they mesh nicely with the trend toward sustainable, organic landscaping. Unlike popular local flowering shrubs like azaleas and camellias, most of the heirloom roses suited to our climate bloom throughout the year. And many of them have full, generous blossoms, defying the popular notion that antique roses mean tiny flowers. Some plants get quite large, and can be pruned to make hedges. “You can have a hedge that blooms all year,” Detweiler says, or a climbing vine that makes a beautiful trellis. The rose for you
The key is finding a type of Old Garden rose that is suitable for this region. There are plenty to choose from—a good source is the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, Texas, which publishes a detailed catalog featuring mail-order roses and their appropriate growing regions. It’s also easy to start new plants from clippings.
They need sun—six hours a day for most, although some thrive in semi-shaded spots—and plenty of water in well drained pots or beds. And they are remarkably resistant to pests and disease; aphids occasionally attack, Detweiler says, but the number of beneficial insects these roses attract, such as ladybugs, is enough to keep aphids in check. “These plants are so hardy. If they do have a temporary infestation they just drop their leaves and grow new ones,” she says. “It doesn’t debilitate the
plant, unlike the modern roses.”

Likewise, a mostly hands-off approach to fertilization is best. Detweiler mixes a little organic material, such as cottonseed meal or rice hulls, into the soil around her roses each winter, but most any non-chemical soil additive will do.

Oldies but goodies
Old Garden rose aficionados consider the flowers nothing less than a piece of the regions cultural and historical fabric that, despite the flowers’ hardiness, needs to be preserved. It’s something Detweiler stresses in her frequent lectures. “We really have borrowed these roses from our ancestors,” she says. “And we want to make sure that these varieties don’t die out. Because there are some varieties that have become extinct.”

Those that have survived often have stories to tell. Peggy Martin, another antique rose devotee, once had more than 460 plants growing at her Plaquemines Parish home. She lost all but one to Hurricane Katrina, which also claimed her parents. Revisiting the site of the destruction was incredibly painful, but amid the destruction, a single Old Garden rose survived. “It was the only bright spot at that time,” Martin says. “The one thing good at the time.”

That rose—a gift from Martin’s hairdresser, who had taken a clipping from her mother-in-law—had never been identified by the antique rose experts Martin consulted over the years. Not long after the storm, one of those experts, Bill Welch, a horticulturalist at Texas A&M University, proposed a new name for the flower. Today, proceeds from the sale of the Peggy Martin rose go into a fund to help restore gardens on the Gulf Coast.

Martin has relocated to Gonzales and replanted 160 Old Garden roses.
She’s seen the Peggy Martin rose growing along fences near her new home, and met the people who grew them. “They didn’t know what it was either,” she says. But now it has a name, and a history to go with it—an heirloom indeed. Rosy reading and Web sites
Maureen Detweiler recommends three books for people who want to grow Old Garden roses:
“Antique Roses for the South” (updated 2004) by William C. Welch of Texas A&M University
“Roses in the Southern Garden” (2000) by G. Michael Shoup. This book can be hard to find.
“The Organic Rose Garden” (2004) by Liz Druitt. While not specific to the South, this book has tips on sustainable gardening that apply to our region.

Web sites:
The New Orleans Old Garden Rose Society’s Web site (www.neworleans-oldrose.com) lists upcoming monthly events and contact information.
The Antique Rose Emporium’s site (www.antiqueroseemporium.com) contains scads of information on which roses grow where, how to make cuttings and, of course, how to order young plants.

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