Is it just me? (On rose rustling...)

Do others view “rose rustling” with a skeptical eye?

As an aspiring amateur hybridizer, I take a somewhat dim view of that which at times smacks of glorified piracy. (The “hobby” seems to be pretty highly romanticized and promoted in this part of the country.) The purported intent is to preserve history, but the only prerequisite for a rustler collecting a “study specimen” seems to be their inability to recognize a cultivar.

A large number of the roses found in folks’ gardens are under patent, and I am aware of collected roses sold under “study names” while they were still under patent. (“Katy Road Pink” comes to mind.) I know of circumstances (not necessarily via rustlers) in which hybridizers find their own material was distributed without their knowledge causing them to lose royalties. I worry about the potential of a rustler taking cuttings off of someone’s seedlings without permission and distributing such.

A year ago, a local program that I occasionally watch featured roses and rose-rustling. I was troubled by the segment because there was no real emphasis on the “etiquette” beyond stating “Obviously don’t dig up plants from cemeteries” and “Well, we hope this encourages more rustling.”

I actually reached out to the programmer, but felt like I got a little push-back with their assertion that the goal of rustling was purely an act of preservation. The interview involved a frequent guest and well-regarded author. I’m not sure I succeeded in impressing upon them, for example, the need for aspiring “rose-rustlers” to get permission from property owners before pilfering material, nor why the omission of information on plant patenting was troubling. (I did suggest they talk to e.g. Dr. Byrnes (A&M is not too far from here) to learn a little about what goes into creating a rose for the garden, to which they seemed receptive, but I don’t know that their interest was in any way germane to my concerns.)

In my own garden, the prime realty (having full sun) is in my front yard, and I am very aware of the potential vulnerability of planting in such a location. A local program’s inciting, “Well, we hope this encourages more rustling,” is disconcerting to me.

I have certainly propagated cuttings from I.D’ed antique roses on the property of others (though generally either with permission, or on public lands) so I cannot be too judgmental. (I usually won’t grow a rose the I.D. of which I don’t know.) And I will concede that I have even propagated patented material on occasion, though never for profit.

What are other folks’ thoughts/reactions to rose-rustling?

Every religion has it’s tenet against stealing. A less charged way of stating it is not to take what is not given. Any action that has the potential to cause turmoil in others, even if seemingly innocuous, will first cause turmoil within. Eliminating such unnecessary inner disturbance is a necessary prerequisite to obtaining inner peace.

I was once walking down a sidewalk in an urban residential area when I spotted a cluster of ripe purple grapes on a fence bordering the sidewalk. I argued with myself, and quickly convinced myself that sampling a grape was not a big deal. Just as my hand reached for a grape a furious barking erupted and I jumped back, startled. I took it as a reminder of the need to strictly avoid taking what is not given. I am far from perfect in this regard, but I’m aware that every transgression takes an instant toll on my state of being.

I have collected mushrooms from a natural area where it was not allowed to do so. It’s a shitty feeling, and leads to all sorts of tangled rationalizations in my brain as well as the anxiety of getting caught. I’ve downloaded images of plants from the internet to use on my signs…Paul Barden ripped me a new one for confessing that here. Nobody is perfect, but actually digging up and stealing a plant that is not yours? Come on. That should not be encouraged.

“Proper” rose rustlers, I am told, do not dig up plants, per the folks with whom I had the exchange, but rather propagate from cuttings for study and preservation. (In other words, they aren’t really stealing the CD, just pirating it. :wink: )

I certainly understand the temptation, and perhaps I’m being a little disingenuous to be offended by the perceived “glorification” of something that occurs, but honestly, only an extremely experienced rosarian could even legitimately speculate was to whether a rose warrants preservation, and if propagation might not be tantamount to piracy.

The omission of information on patents was, IMO, an egregious omission, and made the story tantamount to inciting piracy.

But I think that in the court of public opinion, I would be deemed a bit over-reactive for getting my feathers ruffled.

Joe, I admire your moral compass. I recall a cable “news” station celebrating a man as a hero for returning a bag of stolen money he found from a bank robbery, and I wondered what kind of country we had become when a station raises a man to hero status just for doing the right thing. (It might be more telling of the network that aired the segment, but I won’t go there…)

The Rose Rustlers I’ve read about are heroes in my book. No piracy at all. Old Teas, Chinas, and Bourbons found growing around old mining camps and forgotten cemeteries should be rescued and preserved if only because they have survived through the decades (and maybe a century or more) without assistance.

Then there are the treasured family heirlooms passed down through the generations. While I was in Kentucky a 70-something neighbor invited me to see her little rose garden. Just a few modern roses, and one old-timey rose that was her special pride. She got the “start” for this plant from her mother’s place back in West Virginia. It looked familiar, so I went through the pictures on my web page and found she had the ‘Blush Damask’, just like the one I had photographed in San Jose, CA. This is hers.

In this case, the variety was in no danger of being lost. But what other roses (and such) are even now being handed down to the select few people who want some family history tucked into their gardens?

When I was a kid in Kansas, there were a couple of ladies living just up the street who were known locally as “The Sisters”. They had a beautiful Rambler of a type I can’t remember seeing anywhere else. To the best of my recollection, the flowers looked much like ‘Santa Rosa’, but smaller and lighter pink.

Then there was a spectacular Multiflora Rambler growing down the street from my grandparents’ home in Manhattan. The canes were trained up through a frame, then allowed to bend outwards. When in bloom, from half a block away (and with a bit of imagination) the darned thing looked like a huge scoop of strawberry ice cream.

Sadly, I have no pictures of that one. But it, and the one owned by The Sisters, would be well worth preserving.

While I was in Kentucky, I spent a lot of time wandering the winding roads through the hill country, hoping to find old roses. I did find some very old bearded Irises that I haven’t seen since I left Kansas, but the roses were mainly of the Knock-Out group. There were a few ‘Dr. Huey’, a ‘White New Dawn’, and even a ‘Radiance’. I did see one ‘The Fairy’, but Walmart was still selling it, so I guess it doesn’t really count.

The ones you’ve read about would, I would expect, be the ones who as experienced rosarians did indeed find cultivars at the risk of extinction, and who are thus celebrated in writing for such. I doubt those that just pirate or obtain for free, patented plants, or who might end up ruining a hybridizer’s prospects for royalties, would be celebrated in any writings we might read about.

My concern is what I perceive as inciting the general public to “go out and rustle some roses” as this segment did. I suppose the general public would be less likely to distribute proprietary material than someone with more knowledge or experience, but it still rubbed me wrong.

Among the first roses I ever grew were “Katy Road Pink” and “Caldwell Pink”. At the time – in the mid 90’s – Katy Road had been I.D.ed as Carefree Beauty, yet was still being sold under the study name. My understanding was that C.B.'s patent had not yet expired, and the cynical side of me wonders if it was willful ignorance that prevented the acknowledgement of the true identity by those selling it.

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical…

My own experience is more with obtaining seeds, less frequently whole plants and/or cuttings. Also my experiences are not solely with roses, but with hardwood plants (roses, chestnuts, and various fruiting species) more broadly. Nevertheless for what it’s worth, I certainly am not comfortable taking without permission. A few ideas from my experiences:

  1. When a plant is on private property, it may feel a little awkward to knock on someone’s door to ask permission to obtain material. But in my experience (granted more often with seeds, but still) many people are happy to allow the taking of plant material when my interest is explained and when it’s obvious that my request will have little or no impact on their plant’s overall health. I’ve repeatedly obtained material from private citizens in this manner.
  2. When asking a private individual, consider ways to make yourself look less threatening to a landowner. Smile a lot, dress clean-cut. I’m fortunate to have kids who have been interested in my hobbies, so if the home is obviously safe (i.e. no aggressive dog in the front yard) I have sometimes taken one of my kids. Quality time with the kids doing a mutual interest has been a big benefit. But beyond that, I recognize that as a somewhat stern-looking man in a rural area, some people will simply not feel comfortable opening the front door to speak with me. But if I have one of my smiling kids with me, whole different story right? Suddenly I don’t look very threatening at all when I knock unannounced on a door to ask permission to take seeds and/or cuttings.
  3. In my experience public agencies are extremely variable depending upon their mission. I have experience with this in my own state and an adjoining state. The park service in the adjoining state seems NOT interested in helping a citizen to obtain material, not even seeds. I once approached them to ask to harvest pawpaw seeds, and the answer was definitely no. As I understand it, the park system’s missions are recreation and preservation. So obtaining seeds for conservation?..definitely not. Didn’t matter that obtaining seeds wouldn’t harm their plants; didn’t matter that propagating them would allow me to plant the species for conservation…still no. My request didn’t align with their missions (i.e. it wasn’t recreation or preservation). I believe that my own state’s park system is essentially similar in this regard. On the other hand, my own state’s forest system (not state park system, but state forest system) is extremely accommodating. Their focus is less preservation and more conservation, so harvesting seeds for conservation is right up their alley. (For anyone unfamiliar with the difference between preservation and conservation, there is definitely a big difference.) So the state forest system, being less interested in a “hands-off-the-natural-world” policy and more interested in a “responsible and environmentally-friendly use” policy, is very accommodating. I’ve obtained seed collection permits from them for a wide variety of wild species, including permits at the cost of $2/bushel. No kidding. Which of course was way, way more seed than I actually wanted to obtain. When seeking a bush species in the genus Castanea, one of the local state foresters even came along to help me locate and dig them up (or maybe his motive was to make sure it was done responsibly, but either way I ended up with the plants to cultivate.)
  4. On public land I’m generally more successful the less my request is run up the chain of command. When I’ve spoken with some local governmental employee, I’ve sometimes been successful. When they say something like, “well, let’s ask my boss what he/she thinks” and then the boss asks his/her own boss or whatever, it seems a lot less likely.
  5. Finally, and this is only occasionally helpful, but…have you got some true story that tugs at the heartstrings? Consider using it. About 19 years ago, I showed up for my first date with the woman who is now my wife with a bunch of wild rose flowers that I had picked (yes, almost certainly illegally) from a state forest/wildlife management area near our college. Young and romantic and not necessarily paying much attention to the rules. My wife, being rather sentimental let me know about five years ago that she wished that we had some of those roses growing in our yard. My own beliefs no longer allowed me to simply take material from the area, so I bit the bullet and called the appropriate state biologist and explained the story. Obviously the story does somewhat tug at the heartstrings, and I was promptly sent a permit, not even to take cuttings but to dig up multiple plants (the species spread asexually and the stand was numerous, so this still left plenty).

Anyhow, some of these ideas may be helpful for others who enjoy obtaining plant material and want to do so with permission.


Karl, Could that rambler type be something sold as climbing American Beauty? Jim Urban (Microbiology) had a huge bush on the back of his house and garage on 17th St just south of Alice Stockwell’s place (She was a realtor for maybe 50 years.). I got cuttings from him and it has survived in semi-woodland conditions with hardly any watering for 40 years in my front yard. Who he got it from I don’t know but it wasn’t a purchase, but a gift.

Don Parrish (Chem/Biochem) had a purple gallica type at his “new” house on Poyntz by the park from mid 1950s until he died in 2011. I collected seeds, but never got the original, which required a shovel to propagate. Once the house was sold the rose went away. That rose had been in Manhattan since around 1900 he said, but may be totally gone now. I regret my laziness. I put a picture of it in the RHA newsletter some years ago.

I don’t feel bad about collecting rose hips when I know that it’s me vs the squirrels. I did ask permission to collect pollen because it sort of looks like I’m collecting flowers, even though I only damage a few petals. I have collected cuttings from public places in September or later when I know that frost will take the plant down in winter so its no loss to energy stores. Rooting success is usually good under lights indoors as the carbohydrate levels are high at that time.

I only ever met one Englishman with nerve enough to pinch a geranium cutting at the Kremlin, and bring it back to the UK. We each have our threshold for fear.

Were those the Velen sisters (twins)? They lived out their final years in our neighborhood. Originally refugees (1950s) from Tuttle Creek reservoir when it flooded Mariadahl, longtime school teachers. Quite deaf, retired, always arguing very loud whenever they got ready to go somewhere.

My maternal grandparents lived on Osage. Dick’s Sporting Goods is covering that area. As close as I can figure from Google maps, the Strawberry Ice Cream rambler would have been on 4th between Osage and Fremont. I’m pretty sure the flowers were smallish.

My other grandparents lived on Poyntz, but I can’t recall the block, and all the landmarks are gone. The only interesting rose that I remember was ‘Dr. W. Van Fleet’, trained against a wall in the backyard. Thelma (the land lady) called it here “White Rose”, even though it was not white. (Likewise, the original “White Monthly Rose” was only a shade lighter than the “Red Monthly”.)

I haven’t been to Manhattan since the late 1970s, so I’m really giving my Ginkgo biloba a stress test.

“The Sisters” I knew were in Topeka, and could see just fine.

Well, to be clear, I’m not really concerned about knowledgeable folks taking cuttings off ancient plants. Honestly, provided it’s not being done for profit, I can look the other way when someone propagates a patented rose, particularly if it is one that is very hard to obtain.

My reaction is probably largely based on the reality that, in my own yard, the best siting for my rose plants is in my front yard, and the fact that a local program is encouraging folks to go out and rustle roses is disconcerting. It gives me pause as I don’t know where I could safely trial roses if “rustle that puppy” becomes a pervasive attitude towards plants that are not easily recognized as common cultivars.

If someone came to my door to ask permission and I had proprietary material in my yard, I fear I would come off as quite the cantankerous jerk. I would truthfully be reticent to explain why for fear that might make the taking of material all the more appealing to some.

I dunno. I’m probably paranoid.

(…Although, people can be something else… When I lived in New Orleans, someone apparently drove a van up to my rose garden and spent a good deal of time collecting cut flowers, as a neighbor who witnessed this told me. The person who relayed this to me was the type of neighbor who would happily describe how he watched your house burn down, but it wouldn’t occur to him to bother to try and save it. He was a lovely chap. Whenever a petty crime occurred in the neighborhood, he always promptly engaged in victim-blaming…)

Karl, I think that ‘Blush Damask’ in your photo above looks more like ‘Bella Donna’. That’s a common old variety to find surviving in the eastern U.S., so your rose’s provenance fits the profile perfectly.

I would agree that there’s an ethical line when it comes to rose “rustling”, but the practice has done vastly more good than harm overall. I don’t think it is completely paranoid to worry about the possibility that unreleased seedlings might be “rustled”, especially if you live near the country where “rustling” rose to prominence, but if you can’t hide your seedlings from easy public view or access, you might need to seek creative solutions. Maybe some well-placed decoy roses in particularly prominent and easy-to-reach spots would be helpful.

I also bristled at the longevity of the name ‘Katy Road Pink’ in commerce for ‘BUCbi’ (CAREFREE BEAUTY) long after it should have been common knowledge that they are the same variety. However, there are countless examples of frustrating nomenclature and identification abuses in horticulture, and this example is pretty much par for the course if you look at it through that lens.


You mean like “Jefferson Rose” for Softee? Yup, it’s annoyed me for years, too.

You’re right, Kim. I forgot that I had acquired my Softee as the Jefferson Rose. (I don’t guess I had learned the true I.D. of that one while it was still under patent.) So then, three out of four of the first roses I grew some 20+ years ago were purchased under study names – Caldwell Pink, Katy Road Pink, and Jefferson Rose – and are now I.D.ed for the cultivars they are. Of these, 2 were purchased within 20 years of their release/patent date. (Number four is Natchitoches Noisette, which I don’t believe has been I.D.ed as yet…)

I still have all three, though my Carefree Beauty isn’t directly from cuttings off my original plant. Caldwell Pink/Pink Pet was the one I tried to hybridize with initially and most frequently before learning of its sterility. After so many years, it is still the only rose I have grown that is recurrent and has never, that I have noticed, shown any disease… Wish I knew what its pedigree is.