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This story appeared in the first 2019 edition of Our Country Home.
The history of the world is full of secret roses.
They line roadsides, cover old graves, fill rural gardens. They don’t always look like the flowers you see in grocery stores, and their perfume can be like nothing else on earth. These are the old roses, the heirlooms. Graphic designer Dennis Favello is an heirloom rose rustler— not to be confused with cattle rustling. Rose rustling is more of a search-and-rescue mission. He’s also the co-author of a book, “Orson: History of a Pennsylvania Village, 1840-2018,” with Linda Dix Lee. These pursuits have something in common: conservation of history.
Roses are history in a flower. They can be propagated by cloning, so when you plant certain Rosa Gallica cuttings, you are rooting something that goes back to Roman times. (Gallica as in Gaul, part of Western Europe). Roses also grow on gravesites; in fact, that’s a reliable place to look for them. In old cemeteries, the roses are old too. For readers who have stuck their noses in a bunch of modern roses and wondered what the fuss was about, rest assured that most heirloom roses still smell like the glorious past. In 1997, Favello, then in New York City, bought his house in Orson, an old farmhouse with a big sloping front yard leading down to the road, with several old rose bushes on the property. Then he read a story in Th e New York Times about English botanist Graham Stuart Thomas. “Thomas was an expert on old roses,” Favello said. “And I had eight old rose bushes at my house in Orson. I started buying more.” In 2005, Favello attended a conference on old roses in El Cerrito, California. “I met a guy who was a rose rustler, and he taught me a lot.” That was the late Rev. Douglas Seidel of Emmaus, PA, an expert who was an advisor on old roses for the garden at Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello in Virginia. Two roses are named for him. Favello’s garden now, surrounding the green-paneled farmhouse, includes albas, gallicas, centifolias, damasks and the beautiful Harison’s Yellow Roses. In the spring and summer, the property blooms into a cacophony of color and flora.
You learn to look, to really see. You slow down.
This is why rose rustling matters: There is an old cemetery at the Mormon Priesthood Restoration Site near Susquehanna. Years ago, Favello took a cutting from an old rose bush there to grow some of his own. On a recent trip to the site, he saw that the bush at the cemetery was gone. “I gave the Mormons a bush to replace it,” he said. A vanished antique rosebush can be irreplaceable. Because of hybridization over the years, roses have changed. You don’t know what you’re getting rid of when you plow up that old bush. The change began in 1867, when hybrid tea roses first appeared. Hybrids were developed for impact, Favello said, and to bloom heavily. But, “when they bred them to rebloom they bred disease into them too.” Many modern hybrids are also less cold-hardy, and the new roses had a muted fragrance. You can grow some roses from seed, but to be sure of what you’re getting, buy plants from rose dealers, or—following proper etiquette, of course—rustle your own and then root them.
Rose rustling works like this, Favello explained over coffee at Honesdale’s Black and Brass coffeeshop. You travel the back roads. You learn to look, to really see. You slow down. Always ask permission from the homeowner or property owner. And, most important, only take a cutting. Do not take the whole bush. Heirloom roses grow well in this part of the country, Favello explained. “Roses like acidic soil, which we have,” he said. “They don’t like sandy soil.” Some of us also have that, but a little work and a consultation with a local garden center can mitigate the problem. Other than that, roses, like the most useful historic artifacts, try pretty hard to stick around. “Everyone thinks roses are high maintenance,” Favello said. “But cold-hardy heirloom roses are not. They’re easy, thriving with minimal care, as long as you give them sun... These are survivors.”