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Yardsmart: Heirloom roses

As wagons lumbered across the West, they carried with them remnants of home. While the husband may have brought seed or cuttings from his orchard trees, it was the wife who carried the roses. Wrapped in moist cloth were roots or twigs that would one day come to life again in their new home.

With modern roses it's all about color, but in the past that wasn't such a primary issue. Fragrance was paramount. Rose water, a leading cosmetic of the day, was rare in frontier towns. It served as perfume, cologne, deodorant, room freshener and disinfectant. Therefore, a rose redolent with oily scent would be more than a garden flower. It was a useful addition to everyday life.

In late summer, that rose was also the source of fruit, which is famous for its vitamin C content as well as many other vitamins. Pioneers had little access to nutritional supplements, and the hardscrabble farm life didn't always provide a balanced diet. These rose fruits, if large and plentiful, became the medicinal for treating illness with astringent tea to cool a sore throat and naturally kill bacteria.

These American roses rarely had official names. They were sold and traded by their local nicknames, such as Old Blush. Still more lost their names altogether and simply went wild, naturalizing where the climate suited them.

For a more beautiful, sustainable and historic garden, consider planting these useful roses, which were favorites of the 18th and 19th centuries. These descended from the original wild species of dog rose, Damascus rose and Apothecary rose. They are the once-bloomers that flower prodigiously for a few weeks in late spring.

Unfortunately, you won't find them in the garden center where the stock is usually ever-blooming modern roses. Old roses can only be purchased from catalogs or online stores that specialize in bare-root heirlooms. Bare-root plants are sold during a few months in late winter or early spring.

Because they are field-grown, dug and sold without soil, the ease of shipping bare-root plants makes them less costly than the potted roses. The best sources are online, so you can shop today and the store delivers in time for the bare-root season in your area.

Often it's best to choose an old-rose seller in your state or region because they will know what is hardy and vigorous where you live. But it's fun to look around. The variety of sellers out there is incredible.

Antique Rose Emporium (, for example, is famous for resurrecting old roses from Texas homesteads and graveyards. Many other rose sellers, such as Roses of Yesterday and Today ( are national in scope and offer the most tried-and-true heirloom-rose varieties.

Shopping online is much improved from the minimally illustrated paper-catalog days. It's cheap to post big color pictures on an Internet store with copious descriptions. There may even be comments by other customers who have posted evaluations that help your decision-making. Order promptly to meet this narrow shipping window and because the most popular old roses sell out quickly.

This year, grow sustainable roses for the same reasons the pioneers did. Cherish their beauty, fragrance and medicinal value. Above all, know that when times are tough and it's time to get back to basics, there's nothing greener than an heirloom rose.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at SHNS