A chance floral finding led a Texas horticulturist to devote his work to the revival of growing tried-and-true varieties of heirloom roses.
By Elizabeth Bonner
When Mike Shoup, founder of the Antique Rose Emporium, embarked on his horticulture career in 1976, he never imagined the iconic flower would define it. “Roses were the one plant I swore I’d have nothing to do with,” he recalls.
The high-maintenance reputation of roses deterred him from pursuing the beautiful blooms; instead, he opted to grow ornamental plants. However, when recession hit in the ’80s, Mike began searching his Texas surroundings for unique native plants. “It forced me to try to create a niche—something that could insulate me from selling the same stuff as everybody else,” he explains.
During this search, Mike stumbled upon his first sighting of old garden roses—or antique roses, as he has come to call them—covering a neglected chain-link fence. “These roses were completely breaking all the rules,” he says. “They’re not getting any care, and yet, here they are, thriving 100 years after somebody planted them. That was the epiphany.”
Taking cuttings from similar roses in older rural neighborhoods, abandoned home sites, and cemeteries, Mike quickly discovered they were easy to grow in the same conditions as the rest of his plant repertoire.
These antique roses defy the pampered stereotype of contemporary roses because they have escaped the weakening effects of modern breeding. During the past century, most roses have been bred to be “show-quality—perfectly formed, strong-stemmed, brightly colored, gorgeous roses,” Mike explains. “But the tragedy is that they bred out a lot of the characteristics that made the rose easy to grow. Antique roses are very different, and that’s the big message I want everybody to take away from them.”
Mike found three primary differences in his roses: fragrance, diversity, and versatility. Breeding can reduce a rose’s natural aroma, but the old garden roses boast a wonderful scent. These heirloom flowers also vary in form and function. “Every one of them is different,” he says. “They are time-tested survivors that are great in the garden because they can be used in so many different ways with other plants, with companions. They’re the ultimate garden plant.”
After 30 years of experiencing these exceptional blooms every day, Mike was inspired to write a book about them. He authored Empress of the Garden from the perspective that all his roses are empresses—each one with a distinct personality.
These unique features have brought the Antique Rose Emporium, based in Brenham, Texas, from a mail-order business to what it is today. The roses are grown on-site and sold in a variety of ways. Mail order remains an option, but customers can also choose blooms while strolling through Mike’s 8-acre garden, which features mature roses spilling over structures and embellishing perennial borders.
By connecting with customers in this way, Mike says his main goal is to bring back the charm of old roses—and the delight of growing the plant successfully. “What I’ve been most proud of is convincing people that roses are easy,” he says. “There has been such an intimidating factor with roses in the last 50 years. To reintroduce the joy of growing roses has been our biggest accolade.
“It’s nostalgic. It’s historic. It’s all about gardening and people treasuring what is beautiful and passing it down from one generation to another.”