The Legend of the Texas Rose Rustlers

By Suzanne Labry

Contributing Writer

The term rustler, meaning cattle thief, traces its origins to the early 1880s (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary) during the period of the iconic trail drives of wild longhorn cattle that are inextricably linked with Texas history. Given that association in the Lone Star State, you could be forgiven if you assumed that the group known as the Texas Rose Rustlers (TRR) might also be involved with some sort of “thievery,” albeit of a much gentler — and decidedly more fragrant — sort. You would be wrong! Merriam-Webster gives an alternate definition of rustler, meaning one who forages or who obtains something through one’s own exertions. It’s that alternate definition that applies to the TRR, because the group has never stolen anything. In fact, this bunch of rustlers is known for giving rather than taking.

During the early 1980s (although the precise date seems to be elusive), a small group of singularly focused individuals began driving Texas country roads; scrambling over fences; searching abandoned homesteads; venturing into small-town backyards (with permission, it should be noted); and picking their way through gravestones in cemeteries in search of a particular plunder: roses.

Not just any roses, though, mind you. The Texas Rose Rustlers, as the group eventually became known, were rounding up old-garden roses (OGRs), those that, like the wild longhorn cattle of yesteryear, had escaped civilized society, so to speak, and found a way not only to survive, but thrive in harsh conditions that made their fussier cousins shrivel up and die. These were not the delicate hybrid tea roses that held their lovely but aroma-less heads high on long stems in a flower vase and that performed best in a cool, wet climate. OGRs were untamed; they did not crave attention; they could bloom through drought and withstand hard freezes; they could not care less if you pruned them; and they did not easily succumb to black spot, mildew or aphids. They were tough — Texas tough, in fact — and, left to their own devices, they would spread like groundcover, climb trees or form an impenetrable thorny hedge as high as a house, all the while smelling like, well, a rose.

An unlikely pair first started rustling old-garden roses: Pam Puryear (1943–2005), a self-described eccentric schoolteacher from a generations-deep Navasota family who, according to all accounts, embodied the tenacious, free-spirited characteristics of an old-garden rose herself; and Margaret Sharp (1918–1998), Houston’s “Grand Dame of Roses,” founder of the Houston Rose Society, and a master rose judge for the American Rose Society. While driving down an East Texas country road one drought-bedeviled August in 1969, Pam, who loved roses but was struggling mightily to grow hybrid teas, discovered two old rose bushes happily blooming with no care at a log house built in 1822 that hadn’t been inhabited since 1940. Recognizing a true survivor, Pam dug up the plants, gave one to the property owner and planted the other at her home, where it readily rooted and grew into a huge hedge. She researched her find and discovered that it was ‘Old Blush,’ a China rose thought to be the first Asian rose cultivar ever to reach Europe and that probably made its way to Texas with early settlers. That experience hooked Pam on OGRs for life, and when she subsequently joined the Houston Rose Society and met Margaret, a dynamic duo was formed. At that time, Margaret was working on a Sesquicentennial project that involved tracking down rose varieties, such as ‘Old Blush,’ that had been in Texas long enough to have been blooming there in 1836. Pam knew the Texas back roads and Margaret had the horticultural bona fides. Joining forces, they began searching for old-garden roses together in East-Central Texas, where the Republic’s early settlement took place.

Then a horticultural “perfect storm” occurred. About the same time and in approximately the same area that Pam and Margaret began their country-road OGR forays in earnest, TAMU horticulture professor Dr. William (Bill) Welch, an expert on Southern roses, was scouring the byways for low-maintenance plants suited for the Texas landscape. And Washington Country nurseryman Mike Shoup had given up on mainstream landscape and bedding plants, and started growing Texas natives. In doing his own searches of roadsides, ditches and vacant lots for native plants, he too had discovered roses growing wonderfully wild with no human intervention. He speculated that pioneer Texas nurserymen Thomas Affleck and William Watson originally had offered many of these “found roses” for sale in the area 150 years earlier, but that they had since fallen out of commerce in favor of hybrid teas. It was deep love at first sight for Mike, who co-founded the Antique Rose Emporium with Bill as a mail-order nursery in 1982 with a mission of reintroducing old-garden roses to the public. Given such a timely confluence of passion and technique, it was perhaps inevitable that these four would join forces, and when they did, things really started to get interesting. The game, as Sherlock Holmes might have said, was afoot.

Pam had heard of Bill Welch and paid him a visit at his office at A&M. Each recognized a kindred spirit, and they decided to collaborate on their shared love for OGRs by asking their fellow rose enthusiasts to join them in rescuing what Mike Shoup, in his beautiful book, Empress of the Garden, refers to as “foundlings.” In fact, it was Bill who introduced Pam to Mike, and as Mike recalls, it was in a cemetery where they were all taking cuttings from an ‘Old Blush’ that was vigorously growing there. Mike met Margaret somewhat later, but the four formed the nexus of a group that began to attract interest from rose lovers as far away as Louisiana. The Old Texas Rose Symposium commenced annual meetings, with attendees loading into vehicles and venturing out to the countryside to find and identify “lost” roses. Pam liked to tell tales about being met by homeowners with shotguns and other narrow escapes on these early events. Whether or not those stories were true hardly matters — it was an adventure, and the participants were having a high old time doing something important that they all loved. At some point, someone referred to this activity as “rustling” and the name stuck: the Texas Rose Rustlers.

Bill has fond memories of Pam and Margaret: “One of my rose rustling experiences with Pam involved going to Anderson, Texas, to the home of a woman named Mary Minor. We knocked on her door because she had a beautiful six-foot tall rose blooming in her front yard. We had studied references and thought it could be ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison,’ an 1843 French import revered by generations of rose growers. We were confused because our references indicated the plant to be no more than three-to-four-foot tall. Mary Minor’s plant was much larger. When we asked her about it, she said she rooted it from a cutting from the lady she worked for and she put lots of ‘improvement’ (horse manure) in the soil. Margaret Sharpe helped keep the early rose rustling group together. She was scholarly and efficient, and always seemed to have cuttings to spare of her favorite roses.”

As more and more cuttings were taken, Mike became instrumental in propagating many of the varieties that the Rose Rustlers discovered and he began growing them in his “orphanage” (which eventually evolved from a small mail-order business into the spectacular retail operation in Independence now so admired by rose lovers everywhere). Because sometimes the roses’ heritage was not readily identifiable (and a few remain mystery roses to this day), they would be given temporary names based on where they were found or who shared the cuttings, for example: “Highway 290 Pink Buttons,” “Hole,” “Baptist Manse” and “Mary Minor,” to name just a few.

With the passing of both Pam and Margaret, a significant part of the colorful lore surrounding the Texas Rose Rustlers has been put to rest. Like the roses they revere, however, the group is still vibrant and vigorous. Bill and Mike, who are referred to as patres rosarum by the current head of the Rustlers, Audrey McMurray, remain active members. McMurray, who joined in 1990, says that the membership now holds steady at around 75, down from more than 200 in its heyday. That smaller size is much more manageable, but even that number is too many to descend on a homestead or cemetery all at once to go rustling for whatever treasures might be hiding. Nowadays, any rustling that occurs tends to be done by individuals or small teams using prescribed “rustler etiquette,” and group members spend time tidying up neglected roses in public places with judicious pruning and some knowledgeable TLC. “We prune, weed around the base, sometimes fertilize and then take cuttings if the rose is obviously abandoned. If it is in a yard, we ask permission and usually the homeowner is very friendly and very willing to share the rose’s heritage with us. That’s the fun part: finding out the rose’s history,” said Audrey. “So many lost roses have been discovered since the TRR started that it is becoming less common to see many new finds, although we do see something different almost every year.”

The TRR holds three annual get-togethers: a Spring Symposium, usually held in April or May at various locations; a Summer “Rookie” Meeting, held in July at Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Humble; and a Fall Cutting Exchange, held in October or November at different locations. New members are welcome and the annual dues of $10.00 include the Old Texas Rose, the organization’s quarterly newsletter, and an open invitation to all TRR events. Detailed information can be found on the group’s website: Roses are given away to both members and non-members at all three events using a lotto system. “We give many, many roses away,” said Audrey. “Most of the members raise baby roses all year and bring at least two or three pots of whichever roses are ready, bags of bulbs or starts of bedding plants to each meeting. When I first joined, I was amazed at what a generous bunch Rustlers were. But now that I’m one, I know that we get as big a kick out of it as the recipients do.”

Bill Welch and Texas Gardener’s own Greg Grant are working on a book about the Texas Rose Rustlers to be published by Texas A&M University Press and due out sometime in the next year. It will, no doubt, be a fun and informative read.

The National Gardening Association states that the rose is the most popular flower in the entire world. The rose is said to symbolize love, beauty, war, peace and even politics. In the Lone Star State, thanks to the efforts of the Texas Rose Rustlers, the rose may also claim to symbolize something else: true grit. Leave it to Texans to put their own colorful twist on the beloved flower’s history and appeal.

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