A Journey of Roses
Our Trip to New Orleans
by Sandra Smith

The Texas Rose Rustlers enjoy propagating and exchanging cuttings and plants with each other, as well as throughout the United States. For example, after the 2004 hurricanes devastated Florida, the Rustlers shipped packages of cuttings to fellow gardeners to help them restore their landscapes. Therefore, it was no surprise in the spring of 2006 when our newsletter Editor, Candy Fite, proposed that we collect specimens for the Old Garden Rose Society in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in September 2005. At the Spring 2006 rustle, donations were collected, but space soon became an issue. Donna Martin took them home to nurture until a plan could be formulated. Delivery would also have to wait until our fellow gardeners in New Orleans were finished repairing their homes.

In the fall of 2006, I had my own collection of over 25 roses that I had propagated plus the ones in our garden that needed a new home. I contacted Peggy Martin, a member of the New Orleans OGRS, to see when it would be appropriate for me to deliver them. I learned that the other donations hadn’t found their way to their new home. Therefore, I volunteered to take them. I asked Peggy if I should bring other plants too. Her answer was an enthusiastic “YES!” That’s when things began to mushroom.

Earl and Deanna Krause, Michael, and I staffed a Rustler booth at the Woodlands Landscape Event on September 29. The Montgomery Co. Master Gardeners were giving away bedding plants. When we told them that we were taking plants to New Orleans, they gave us all of the plants left at the end of the event. There were 18 flats. We filled our van and the Krause’s car, drove to my mother’s house nearby, for temporary storage until we could get them all to Coldspring.

One Friday on my lunch hour I saw a “Garden Club Plant Sale” sign. I stopped to browse and had fun telling them about the Houston Rose Society, the Rustlers, and our New Orleans project. Luckily, they asked for my name and number for more information, because the following Monday they called to donate all their plants left from the sale to New Orleans and asked if I could come pick them up. Of course, I said I’d be there after work that same day. It was two full carloads. I must confess that I did leave some of the house plants, but not many!

In October, more donations were received at our Fall Rustle. Again, the van was filled. Then on Monday, October 16, it rained 7-1/2 inches in one day. The plants took a beating, but I only lost a couple.

We picked up the U-Haul trailer in Houston on Saturday, November 4, after the Houston Rose Society annual chemical sale. The following day, Michael and I started packing the boxes that were donated by Action Box Co. We packed the roses separately from the other plants and alphabetized them. Since it had rained so much and our rural driveway is very steep, we left the U-Haul trailer on the street in front of our house. We loaded our Kawasaki mule and our van and made several trips to place the boxes in the trailer. We finished 10 hours later and drove to Houston Sunday night, so our neighbor could take care of our dogs, who barely fit into the van because of all the plants. We headed east on Monday, dodging thunderstorms all the way. Amazingly, we didn’t encounter any heavy rain. Someone was definitely watching over us. We found our motel and had dinner at the restaurant there, because we didn’t want to drive another mile!

The following morning, Peggy Martin took us to the Botanical Garden to meet the Times Picayune photographer. Lo and behold, the garden was closed because of the state election . . . but the bars were open. This IS New Orleans! Finally, we found some employees putting up Christmas decorations, who let us in. Peggy led the way to the only two roses that had survived the salt-water flood. It was a miracle. We stood there in awe and reverence. The survivors were the Peggy Martin Rose and cream-colored Sea Foam, which was introduced in 1964 by Schwartz. The photographer asked Peggy when her Society was going to have their next sale. She wasn’t sure. He said that even though he had only 2 feet of water during the hurricane, all his plants died. I piped up and invited him to the meeting that night. I was honored when he came. We enjoyed walking around the garden seeing various sections. Many plants, including roses, have been donated. Unfortunately, not all the trees survived, but the ones that did are trademarks of New Orleans.

We left the Botanical Garden for the 25-mile drive to what used to be Peggy’s home in Plaquemines Parish. We saw miles and miles of “ghost towns”. Homes that had survived hundreds of years were now damaged or destroyed. History was gone. Just piles and piles of rubble remained. Occasionally, there were parking lots filled with white trailers lined up like building blocks, where citizens lived. Some had a wooden stairway and occasionally, you would see a potted plant sitting by the door, a feeble attempt to bring some beauty back into their lives. Peggy drove cautiously through intersections with missing stop signs or traffic signals. Remember, this is over one year after the hurricane.

Plaquemines Parish is where Fort La Boulaye, the first European settlement in what is now Louisiana, was built in 1700, and abandoned 7 years later after serving its defensive purpose. In the early 1800’s, a magnificent plantation named Magnolia, began to develop. It was full of fruit trees, flowers, and crops, by the time it burned to the ground in 1891. Like the myth, a town called Phoenix rose from the ashes, when the slaves built homes in the same area.

Peggy had created an extraordinary garden, while her husband enjoyed shrimping nearby with his friends. Her parents, who drowned in the storm surge, lived in a house on the same property. They always chose not to evacuate when hurricanes threatened the area and Hurricane Katrina was no exception. Along this road, everyone had known each other, as well as their parents, and sometimes, even their grandparents. Their surrounding levy did not break. The salt water surged over it, filling the area like a bowl. It was two weeks before the levy was mechanically broken, to allow the water to drain.

Peggy pulled into what was her driveway for 37 years. We sat for a moment in silence. Strangely, the car windows were covered by hoards of mosquitoes. I had to wonder how they were surviving without a food supply. There, growing over the top of a large shed, was the Peggy Martin Rose. It was the lone survivor out of 450 roses. Cuttings, from the original rose in New Orleans, had been passed from friend to friend, until Peggy received her cutting in 1989. A thornless, fragrant, repeat climber that certainly needs no Earth Kind trials to prove its carefree status! Dr. Bill Welch received his cutting in 2003 and it quickly covered a fence at his weekend home in Fragilee, Washington County. After the hurricane, he spearheaded the campaign to market the Peggy Martin Rose, with $1 from each sale donated to the Garden Restoration Fund.

Michael ventured out of the car to take photos and the mosquitoes swarmed him. He somehow managed to get most of them off before returning to the car, where we were slapping them all the way back to New Orleans. There was one school in Peggy’s area that had re-opened. It included all grades. Peggy stopped to vote. And just to let you know, we had voted early knowing we would be here.

We had lunch at the Red Fish Grill in the French Quarter, which oddly hadn’t been flooded during the hurricane. However, the lack of electrical power, patrons, and employees took its toll on the businesses. We saw a few tourists in this area, all of whom seemed to be having a good time and spending money. Peggy was a gracious host who took us to all the significant sites, including sampling the famous beignets at Café du Monde. She even had packed an ice chest with drinks for the tour.

That evening we unloaded the donations into the library conference room, putting the roses on one side and the plants on the other, with all of them alphabetized in case someone was looking for something special. After all, there were almost 100 roses, cuttings, and over 400 plants. At the OGRS meeting, I spoke about our garden, landscaping tips, and propagating roses, including an overview of some of the donations that they may not be familiar with. Then Peggy presided over the rose “lotto”. Those who had lost everything were given first pick in the lotto. Then those who lost most of their roses were given a chance to make their selection. Then the ticket numbers were called at random. I believe everyone who attended personally thanked Michael or me. Of course, we were pleased to hear from some members that they received roses that they had had before the hurricane. One gentleman brought us his favorite Chicken & Sausage Jambalaya recipe. I must confess that I haven’t tried it yet because it makes one gallon, but I certainly intend to try it.

Imagine your bustling neighborhood, your local dry cleaners, restaurants, and schools. Picture your neighbors carrying on their busy days, complaining about the traffic and the slow postal service and their bank making a mistake. Then picture your neighborhood and adjacent neighborhoods empty with the exception of two or three homes. Imagine not seeing a grocery store for 20 miles. As for traffic, imagine driving with missing stop signs and non-functioning traffic signals if they are there at all. No restaurants. No post offices. No banks. No fire departments or police departments. Imagine no birds or bees or butterflies. No rabbits, armadillos, cats, or dogs.

The hidden pain and suffering of so many losses aren’t obvious to outsiders. The stress is still taking a toll. Many have died from heart attacks since the hurricane, while others have suffered similar traumas such as divorce from the stress. Family and friends have been separated, having moved to various other locations, leaving behind decades of memories.

The survivors continue to rebuild their houses and their lives, wherever they now call “home”. Peggy and her husband have moved to Gonzales, north of New Orleans. Her husband has purchased another, but smaller, shrimp boat. Many gardening friends have sent Peggy roses or cuttings. There are only a few special ones, not sold commercially, that she is still looking for.

In the Rustler spirit of giving and sharing, we hope that we brought just a little beauty back into the lives of these avid gardeners. Ever since Michael and I we were flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, we had said we’d like to do something to help someone in need, but never knew what that would be. Very few people helped us when we flooded. We’re not sure why people didn’t help. Maybe it’s because they just don’t realize the impact of losing everything you own. A lot of people told us that we shouldn’t have moved there. Well, I guess the Medical Center and the Houston Ballet shouldn’t have moved to their locations either since they flooded too. Maybe it’s because they believe that FEMA actually helps. Maybe it was because they are desensitized by television. Since we have suffered several losses over the years, we couldn’t help by giving money. Propagating, collecting, and delivering plants to New Orleans was the perfect project. I have to admit. It was very healing for me. If you find yourself having a pity party, I would suggest you find some way to do something for someone less fortunate.

I’d like to mention that the Lewises, who created a garden which inspired us to start our own rose garden, also flooded during tropical storm Allison, as well as the Krauses, whose garden had been on the World Rose Tour the year before Allison.

Many people made this endeavor a success. My company had offered to pay for the boxes, but when Action Box Co. found out what they were for, they generously donated them. Thanks to the Houston Rose Society for loaning their projector.

I’d also like to remind you that the Martin family is only one story. There is STILL a lot of work to do. Our wish is that the donated plants help heal the New Orleans folks by reminding them that they are not forgotten.

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