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Sniffing for signs of pre-hybrid America.

Pricked with passion, rose-rustlers set out to give old varieties new life

A moss rose, left, a Victorian favorite, grows wild in a cemetery in the Orson, Pa., area. At right, Ruth Flounders documents roadside rose blooms.
A moss rose, left, a Victorian favorite, grows wild in a cemetery in the Orson, Pa., area. At right, Ruth Flounders documents roadside rose blooms.Read moreBOB WILLIAMS / For The Inquirer

ORSON, Pa. - With their easy laughter and scholarly ways, these seven friends sure don't act like rustlers. But on this day, they're definitely on the hunt in northeastern Pennsylvania, combing through overgrown cemeteries and roadside brambles in search of forgotten treasure: old roses.

"These roses are part of American history, part of who we are as a people. They should be kept alive," says the Rev. Douglas Seidel, pastor of Jesus Focus Ministry in Churchville and a longtime rose-rustler.

Sounds devious, even violent. But this is a gentle, respectful group, interested only in snipping small cuttings to propagate plants in their home gardens - and share with others - so these cherished links with the past can live on and thrive.

The simple beauty and heady scent of old roses have captivated rose lovers, including Napoleon's Empress Josephine, for centuries. And they were all there were in this country till 1867, when the first hybrid tea rose - with its elegant, pointed buds and stiff, upright stems - entered the marketplace and, over time, blew almost everything else off the shelf.

Today, the "old rose" definition has expanded to include those dating to the 1920s, but they're long gone from the trade. Which is why impassioned rose geeks all over the country try to "rescue" them from places like this, the undisturbed, cow-filled countryside north of Scranton.

"How could you not love them?" Dennis Favello asks as he inhales the sweet scent of 'Belle sans Flatterie,' one of 70 old - or heirloom or antique - roses in his garden in Orson.

The lineup

Old roses are tough. They come in fun shapes, from cups to rosettes, and enjoy a good sprawl. They're famous for fragrance.

Favello, a graphic designer, fell in love with them 30 years ago at a cemetery near his college in Oakland, Calif., and now regularly scouts the countryside near his home. He organized this expedition as a postscript to the Old Rose Symposium last weekend at Wyck, the historic house in Germantown with a rose collection dating to the 1820s.

The symposium-goers reunited at midday Monday at Favello's restored 19th-century home. He prepared lunch: roasted chicken, mac 'n' cheese, and spinach salad with homegrown strawberries. (Gooseberry-and-rhubarb pies - homemade crust, fruit from the backyard - would come later.)

The mood was jolly with anticipation, the conversation replete with tales of roses lost and found, even as the hunting grounds disappear. Philadelphia's ancient cemeteries are picked clean, the group agreed, but Lancaster, Wayne, and Schuylkill Counties? The Poconos? Still promising.

So, in addition to Favello, who are these rose-rustlers?

Seidel lectures at the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. As a boy, he was smitten by roses in Easton Cemetery, near his home; he began searching for old varieties in Pennsylvania and South Jersey in 1968 with his mentor, the late Leonie Bell, a rose expert from Conshohocken who befriended him.

Stephen Scanniello of Jersey City and Barnegat, N.J., is known for transforming the Cranford Rose Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He's president of the Heritage Rose Foundation, which promotes old roses; author of rose books; and frequent judge in rose competitions. He would leave Thursday for one in Paris.

Kent Krugh, whose rose obsession dates to the early 1990s, is a medical radiation physicist and photographer from Cincinnati. Ruth and Jack Flounders own Roses in Thyme, a small, old-rose nursery in Susquehanna County, and Nicole Juday is Wyck's horticulturist.

On the hunt

While modern roses are beloved by millions, old roses appeal to a much smaller group. Fans find one another at rose conferences and shows, online, and through book events. They share a sense of mission and adventure, and some rules:

No trespassing; ask permission, unless owners or caretakers cannot be found or the place appears abandoned. Remove only a small cutting or runner, not an entire plant, unless destruction is imminent. And share locations with like-minded colleagues only.

These colleagues often hunt together and seem to have had no problems. "We always ask and explain, if that's possible," Seidel says.

Soon, the three-car caravan is weaving through a landscape of red barns, grain silos, and grazing cows. Suddenly, the lead car, with Favello in it, stops. Here, on an embankment, is a carefree tumble of cinnamon rose, a Northern European native that has probably been growing hereabouts for a couple hundred years. The ruins of a log cabin lie just beyond, in a thicket.

The pink blossoms smell of cinnamon. "I've never found this rose in Ohio," Krugh says as he and others take photographs and dig out small pieces of the plant, placing them in plastic bags to take home.

"This rose has been mowed down," Seidel notes. "It takes abuse and still keeps going."

The day is movie-perfect, a breezy 62 degrees. The sky is periwinkle blue with free-form clouds. The fields are crowded with Queen Anne's lace, buttercups, and pale pink cuckoo flowers.

The rustlers hit several 19th-century cemeteries, neglected places whose history has been rubbed away and largely forgotten. They find a Scotch rose, which probably arrived in these parts in the 18th century; another, very rare cinnamon rose, which was first recorded in 1500 and was popular in American colonial gardens; and, thanks to Juday, a moss rose, which Scanniello insists "begs to be touched."

The pink buds have a sticky, green fuzz that, when rubbed, smell like balsam. A Victorian favorite for valentines and china patterns, the moss rose was considered the ultimate romantic expression.

"You don't find it much," says Ruth Flounders, who sometimes gets one from friends. (Old-rose fans live to share.) She then grows it in the nursery she and Jack run in Auburn.

At the last stop, Seidel yells, "Apothecary!" He has found Rosa gallica officinalis, the apothecary's rose, one of the oldest roses in cultivation. Its image was found on the walls of Pompeii; it was the symbol of the House of Lancaster in medieval England, and its petals were made into medicines and love potions.

It's 4:30 p.m. Time for pie. The caravan turns back toward Favello's house. Juday, on her first rose-rustle, muses from the front seat, "This could be addictive. I can see how annoying this is going to be for my family!"

There is laughter and good-natured mumblings from the others. "I'm addicted," they say, one by one.