An inspired and energetic horticulturist builds a national business from old glories growing throughout the rural South.
Could rural economic development be showy, carefree and waving under your very nose?
For at least one entrepreneur, Michael Shoup of Independence, Texas, success has been just that – a reckoning with both the facts of a tough business environment and the realities of nature. In what used to be cotton country, the rolling blackland prairie between Austin and Houston, Texas, Shoup created and has perpetuated what has to be the most beautiful rural economic incubator ever conceived.
It’s called the Antique Rose Emporium, and in April with its thousands of plants in full glory, it ‘s drawing gawkers and buyers from across the world. His business, now in it’s 30th year, has grown into the nation’s top seller of own-root roses (plants grown directly from cuttings rather than grafting). And it draws 75,000 visitors a year to Washington County.
So far as we know, there were no tax-breaks or other incentives that propelled this unconventional enterprise to success. Rather, the Antique Rose Emporium, like many rural businesses, grew out of a combination of desperation, labor and insight – the apprehension of freewheeling local treasures and then the talent to harness them.
In the late-1970s Shoup was a young horticulture graduate, not long out of Texas A&M. His standard nursery business — selling woody plants like red tipped photinias to landscape companies – was fast collapsing along with the state’s economy. Shoup found himself scrambling for a niche to survive.
He and friend Dr. William Welch, horticulture magus at A&M, both possessed a fervent interest in Texana and Southern garden history. In the early ‘80s, they fell in with a group of plant fanatics, a dynamic mix of amateurs and pros. Calling themselves the Texas Rose Rustlers, the group spent weekends motoring through the state looking for the rugged varieties of old roses that had survived more or less untended.
And they found them, dozens of them, climbers like “Mermaid” dragging down a chain link fence, hardy china roses like “Martha Gonzales” growing unnamed in the yard of the Navasota gardener whom it now honors, and many more. The Rose Rustlers — Shoup and Welch too – were looking for Texas history in plants and discovering rose varieties that could survive the brutality of Lone Star weather, shrugging off the drought and heat to bloom.
They found roses scraping in the breeze against headstones in country cemeteries and flowering on lonely stretches of state highway. These tough and beautiful plants were a kind of feral resource that Shoup and his wife Jean were determined to re-domesticate and make available to gardeners all across the country.
In the mid-1980s the Shoups turned property in the unincorporated town of Independence, outside Brenham, into display gardens.
“It was kind of funny when we moved in here,” Shoup says, “because I started essentially farming, but my farming was in pots. And I would go down to the local store and they would be talking, the local farmers, saying ‘That guy is farming on top of the ground.’ Of course what I was doing was horticulture, a little bit different what they all knew.”
Texas actually has quite a rose history. At the turn of the 20th century, the peach crop in northeast Texas was overcome with disease, sending farmers in that region searching for a more reliable livelihood. They settled on roses and in the next 20 years had built a healthy rose industry within a 30 miles radius of Tyler. According to H. Brent Pemberton’s history, “By the late 1950's, over 20 million plants were harvested yearly by almost 300 growers.”
The Tyler roses, primarily hybrid teas, were grown from grafted root stock, usually eight-inch lengths of hardy Rosa multiflora that would be tied with budded tea rose cuttings in the spring. Remember seeing bare rose roots wrapped in plastic and stacked at the door of the grocery every springtime? Those were likely Tyler roses.
Grown in Washington County, some 180 miles south, the Antique Rose Emporium’s roses are ungrafted. They’re cultivated from the original root stock, which makes them less vulnerable to heat or cold, as well as more reliable.
(Gardeners of hybrid teas have all had the experience of a strange briar-like rose emerging after an especially harsh winter; that’s because the budded tea rose that was grafted above the root froze, and the original hardy stock is asserting itself.)
The Antique Rose Emporium sells most of its roses online, but for those fortunate enough to live nearby — or ardent enough to make a longer trip — visiting the display gardens is an indelibly marvelous experience. The original Antique Rose Emporium, covering eight acres, shows off roses in many acrobatic and practical poses: climbing, hedging, draping, shielding, rambling – a botanical Cirque de Soleil. Rose-covered trellices cover walkways among several old buildings that the Shoups have preserved—the architectural counterpoint to heirloom plants. Nearby, their 11-acre nursery raises cuttings of hundreds of varieties: including early Noisettes, old tea roses, rugosas, and the hardy “Pioneers” that Shoup has bred himself.
A second garden outside San Antonio is well worth a trip, too, and instructive for those of us who live father west, as it combines roses lavishly with t-totally-Texas plants like cactus, agave and yucca.
Jean Shoup says that the Rose Emporium, “has definitely turned into a tourist oriented venture. Tourism is much more important today than it was 20 years ago.” She says that their endeavor “is riding the shirttails of all success of the wildflowers, bluebonnets, the Washington County active chamber promoting Washington County as being the top place for wildflowers.” Furthermore, when Highway 290 was extended all the way from Houston, circa 1997, the drive became swifter and simpler for urbanites. Now the Antique Rose Emporium itself has become a destination.
One afternoon last week, scores of dazzled women and men, many with white hair, strolled down the gravel pathways among islands of “Pink Climbers” and “Noisettes” “Hybrid Perpetuals” and “Rugosas.” Dragging red wheelbarrows behind them, they seemed to have walked through the looking glass into a magic archipeligo, a place forever young and bristling with silent, living delight.
“I had heard about this place for a long time,” said Alice Wells of Lake City, Florida. “I want one that smells just wonderful.” Last we saw, her wheelbarrow held two Heritage roses, a yellow Nacogdoches, and a climbing Crimson Glory (winner of the James Alexander Gamble Rose Fragrance Medal 1961).
Rural economic development so often settles for tax tables and grant proposals, “workforce development” offices, and the like. All these means, and more, will have to be marshalled to keep rural places alive. But Mike Shoup is to be credited for his adventurous, five-senses approach to entrepreneurship. He’s seen development from an old angle and made it new. Louis Phillippe, Peggy Martin, F.J. Lindeheimer, his wares are living ambassadors of the virtues that have endured in the Texas countryside.