Rambling Development, Scented Pioneers

[imgbelt img=arepioneers528.jpg]An inspired and energetic horticulturist builds a national business from old glories growing throughout the rural South.



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.