The Texan behind popularizing ‘lost’ roses is retiring.

The Texan behind popularizing 'lost' roses is retiring.

Roses have a fussy reputation. But take a stroll through an aging cemetery, and you’ll find the queen of flowers flourishing long after the humans who planted her have passed away. Sometimes upward of 100 years old, these survivors have thrived in the face of everything Texas weather has thrown at them over the decades, from suffocating humidity and freezes to droughts and triple-degree heat.

Mike Shoup made his career bringing such time-tested roses to the American public. The Antique Rose Emporium, which Shoup founded with his wife Jean in a small town halfway between Houston and Austin, supplies 60,000 to 100,000 roses to the nation a year. Along the way, it has helped many change their views of the rose from a prissy flower requiring helicopter parenting to a Texas-tough landscaping staple.

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So when the Shoups announced they were retiring and had sold their nursery to a new family, hundreds of gardeners took to Facebook, where they shared their fondest memories at the Antique Rose Emporium and wondered about its future.

Looking to the past

The Shoups and the family of Jim and Kim Keeter, who purchased the nursery, have been doing much of the same. 

“When you retire, it’s reflective,” said Mike Shoup, 70.

The rose, he explained, had opened doors in his life. It saved his career, introduced him to friends and flew him and Jean Shoup, 71, around the world as organizations called on their expertise. 

People often reach out to the Shoups about how the nursery has played a role in pivotal moments in their lives as well. Couples remember first dates, engagements and weddings among the flowers. Families ask to spread the ashes of their loved ones on the grounds. 

So Shoup feels a sense of gratitude for all the rose has done for him – especially because, for the first three decades of his life, he had no interest in the plant. 

Jean and Mike Shoup, former owners and founders of Antique Rose Emporium, talks about how he and his wife started the business Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Brenham. A Texas rose legend, Shoup retired in December.Yi-Chin Lee/Staff photographer

Growing up in Spring Branch, his first love was tomatoes. As a 6 year old, he’d use a wheelbarrow to carry composted leaves from the bottom of a nearby creek to feed his plants, reveling in the primordial, mushroomy smell of the rich soil. When he opened his first nursery in Houston in the ’70s, he sold nonnative plants that were run-of-the-mill at the time – ligustrum, Asiatic jasmine, photinia.

But when the oil industry swung from boom to bust, so did business at his Houston nursery. Looking to create more of a niche for himself, he started combing the countryside with plant enthusiasts including Lynn Lowrey and Carroll Abbott, looking for plants that had evolved to weather the swings of Texas’s climate. 

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Shoup started coming across strikingly healthy and fragrant roses that he did not recognize – he had never seen them available for sale. And after chatting with homeowners and cemetery keepers and hearing that some roses had been happily growing with little care for decades, he was enthralled. 

When he and other enthusiasts known as Texas Rose Rustlers find such a tried-and-true rose, they ask for permission to take a cutting and begin growing new ones. Shoup often drove with an ice chest in the back of his vehicle for just this purpose. 

Looking back on his career, certain moments stand out: The joy of sinking deep into conversation with a homeowner about the treasures in her yard. The sleuth-like thrill of finding out the name a rose was originally sold under – an endeavor that involves perusing antique catalogs and books and obtaining old roses to see if they match a found plant. The vicarious rush of seeing a customer unexpectedly encounter old memories in the garden. 

Doreen's Centennial roses are photographed in a greenhouse at Antique Rose Emporium Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Brenham. The Keeter family took over the business built by Texas rose legend Mike Shoup in December.
Doreen’s Centennial roses are photographed in a greenhouse at Antique Rose Emporium Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Brenham. The Keeter family took over the business built by Texas rose legend Mike Shoup in December.Yi-Chin Lee/Staff photographer

Once, upon passing a 6-foot rose plant covered in sweetly pastel blooms, an elderly woman halted in her tracks, then turned to Shoup with tears welling up in her eyes. “That was my grandmother’s rose,” she told him. “I haven’t smelled that in 30 years.”

That, he believes, is the power of the rose – the relationships people have formed with them across generations. 

And for that reason, he wanted to make sure that the work he had done with those roses would survive him. In 2018, he asked a commercial broker to start asking around for buyers.

Planning for the future

When Jim Keeter Jr. and his wife Kim married 23 years ago on Feb. 14, 2000, he gave her a wedding present: a red rose named Valentine, which he had purchased from the Antique Rose Emporium. He’s long called the gardens at the nursery his sanctuary. Something about the place lifted his spirits, and made his worries seem far away.  

So when he and his wife heard it was for sale, they were immediately interested. They reached out to discuss purchasing the nursery in 2021, and closed in December.

Jim Keeter Jr. grew up in the landscaping industry – his father was a prominent landscape architect whose projects included the master plan for the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the 1968 transformation of the San Antonio River Walk and the Riverwalk in Estes Park, Colorado. Whenever his father needed roses, he would turn to the Antique Rose Emporium, Keeter said.

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