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In Memory: Antique Roses for the Departed

We know cemeteries as place to remember those who have passed on, but many are also a haven for forgotten specimens of flowers like antique roses. This is because many years ago, family members would plant the favorite flower of a loved one next to his or her headstone, and in some cases, those flowers live on many hundreds of years later.

Strains of centuries-old roses remain in the long-forgotten cemeteries of rural and modern communities, said Mike Shoup of the Antique Rose Emporium.

“Cemeteries are pretty fruitful hunting grounds for the past,” he said. “These plants were admired in those times when life was harder, and we didn’t have the luxuries we have today. People enjoyed their roses, daylilies, irises, and many were used as part of their memorial.”

antique roses

These flowers and their fragrances can also evoke memories in us. Did your grandmother have a favorite flower? Many in the older generation would associate themselves with a particular flower or plant, and the aroma of that plant can trigger memories in us.

“Most of the antique roses I’ve discovered have a fragrance, and that’s untrue about our modern roses. But when you find these cemetery roses, many have a distinct fragrance and that’s a memory or an emotional tie,” he said. “Fragrance is something that, even if you haven’t smelled it in 30 years, it can transport you back in time.”

Shoup says the aromas of these antique roses are more nuanced, like wine.

“Some are citrusy, some are banana cream pie smells, some are pepper-y,” he said. “They’re all different and that makes them even more compelling, too. It’s not just rose fragrance, it’s lots of different types of fragrances that come from different types of flowers, like describing wine.”

And these plants are tough, Shoup said. “We find some of these plants have the tenacity to survive through time. We only find those that were strong enough to live through the ages, and in many cases without the care of anyone. They lived through the seasons and ebb and flow and are amazingly tenacious.”

These plants give us a glimpse into the past, and because they’re often next to a headstone, that helps to put a date on them.
“That’s the story of cemeteries. I think cemeteries are a throwback in horticulture to what was once popular. You’re seeing some of the best plants in some of these ethnic or smaller community cemeteries,” he said. “And it’s more than just roses. People planted trees and shrubs and lots of different things, so it becomes a collection of plants once admired 100 or 150 years ago.”

They’re also more than just memories; sometimes these antique roses give a look into important historical events.

“Not only are these nostalgic plants, but they also reveal history,” he said. “An antique rose I found in Texas turned out to be a rose called Louis Phillippe, and it was brought over as a gift from the French when Texas was a Republic, so we see this historical thread in roses as well. It says a lot about the changes in roses, too. Those are times when roses were known to be tough, had fragrance and compelling attributes that made them easy for homeowners to grow.”

Signs you’ve found an antique rose:

  • Location: Any rose that survives in an old cemetery is usually pretty tough, unless you can tell it’s a new gravestone. If it’s near a headstone dated in the 1930s, 40s or even 1800s, that’s a clue.
  • Color and shape: Modern roses have a very upright habit, with very glossy leaves. Antique roses can be cascading like fountains, with thick, chunky and pale foliage.
  • Fragrance: If it has a strong fragrance, you might be dealing with an antique rose.

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Old-Fashioned Roses that Climb

See this story in the Fall e-magazine.

Find roses in the P. Allen Smith shop