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Gardening: Grave Robbing

Look to the places of the dead for some of history's finest roses.



Victorian England is full of tales of body-snatching, of shifty-eyed rogues digging into graves on moonless nights to harvest fresh corpses. These bodies were sold to medical colleges eager to unravel the workings of the human anatomy at a time when dissection was considered a bit blasphemous — or, at the very least, a serious faux pas to mention at parties.

Nowhere in that literature, though, is a mention of those skulking grave robbers ever stopping to smell the roses, which is too bad, because cemeteries are full of roses, types that in this day of well-behaved hybrids have become appreciated for their hardiness, fortitude and longevity.

There are gardeners out there, friend, who are, how shall we say, adventurous about roses. These are people who forage in abandoned lots, old homesteads and crumbling cemeteries for that one lost rose, that antique or old garden rose, that one that has yet to be rediscovered. They are rose rustlers, the grave robbers of horticulture. And like the body snatchers of yore, their goal is, ultimately, to expand our knowledge of life. Although those Victorian rogues couldn't run their prizes up a trellis without getting a lot of weird looks.

Rose rustlers are an unofficial group of enthusiasts who patrol the corners of the world for clippings to take home and grow. Like tomatoes and other types of flowers, roses have been so coddled and trained that they're very particular in a garden setting, susceptible to this and that and often with a too-polished look and brighter colors than the more subtle antiques. Rose rustlers are going back to the roots, so to speak.

Now, there is some contention about dates, but most people agree that the first hybrid tea rose was "La France," brought into the world in 1867. After that, it was a mad rush of grafting and rootstock and science. People bred roses to bloom continuously, resist black spot and rotate your tires. The "Knockout" rose is, in many opinions, the finest hybrid to come out of a borrowed rootstock. But will it have the longevity of a Rosa moschata, introduced around 1540 and growing happily in Richmond's own Hollywood Cemetery?

Hollywood is home to more than a dozen rose types, many of which were introduced around the time of the cemetery's establishment in 1847, meaning some, like the "Safrano," the "Louis Philippe" and the "Manettii," were new to the scene when they were planted. Now they're monsters, thorns like shark's teeth, stems like a convict's wrist. Hardy, indeed. To the horticultural world, cemeteries like Hollywood represent history at a genetic level.

When you consider that roses are about 35 million years old, you might say that we're getting into the game pretty late. But we make up for lost time with sharp clippers, patience and good manners. Most affirmed rose rustlers insist on decorum when seeking clippings, meaning: Ask first. It's a well-known fact that the dead don't landscape, but owners of old homes, cemeteries or wherever else you see antique roses may not take to shifty-eyed gardeners skulking around the place. And if they're armed ... well, it's worth repeating: The dead don't landscape.

So you get a clipping and avoid zombies, dogs and thorns. You have an antique rose. You're a rustler. Now what?

These puppies are drought-tolerant, all right. But make sure they have a good, enriched soil and six hours of sunlight a day. Water a few times a week until they're established. Then keep them pruned back to get them growing right. And prune after blooming — this is old growth you're dealing with. Expect a little black spot from time to time. But don't worry, this condition can be treated or often left alone — theses roses have lasted on their own for quite a while, remember. And for that authentic look, bury a loved one nearby. Hey, fertilizer isn't cheap.


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