Human Flower Project

Make Room for Betsy

A gift takes pride of place.


Life intervenes: ‘Louis Philippe’ (maybe), a china rose, passed along from Betsy Pirie, courtesy of Terry Childress

Photo: Human Flower Project

Garden design is to gardening as standing on the beach swinging your arms is to swimming in the ocean. Lots to be gained by arm-swinging, as in not drowning. But once you’re in over your head, other motions take precedence.

Social life is like that—oceanic. And by an act of kindness, we’ve just been ripped off shore.

Our neat, newly designed and planted (and exorbitant)  garden has been coming along fine this spring, even despite two+ months of sewer repairs the length of the street. Time, we figured, to pull some little weeds, kick back and watch Eden happen.

On our especially sunny south side, we’d put in six roses. Three were salvaged from the yard B.S.E. (Before the Stan Era): Archduke Charles, Russelliana (a.k.a. the Old Spanish rose), and JACarque or Honey Perfume (we abbreviate to H.P.). A Maggie and second Archduke Charles had fried last fall, along with three Ducher shrubs.

So we bought and planted a second Archduke Charles and two gorgeous F.J. Lindheimer roses (stay tuned for more on the latter). Settled, lovely, nearly symmetrical, and all blooming or coming into bloom.


imageAlong Blunn Creek, Austin, TX, November 2007, Terry Childress, Charlie and Betsy Pirie

Photo: Bill Bishop

And then along comes Betsy. Walking quite slowly, with her favorite tall walking stick and her favorite walking companions, Terry Childress and his dog Charlie, Betsy Pirie was on her way up our street, not ordinarily her route. Betsy, who will be 98 July 18, is quietly renowned in our part of Austin. She was the second woman to be licensed as a civil engineer in Texas (the first to gain certification by taking the exam) and now lives, cheerfully, alone.  Many an afternoon, you’ll find her relaxing in the hammock on her front porch, listening to the radio. She always waves to folks as they pass on the street, and welcomes company if you’d care to stop in and chat.

This particular day, she was doing the walking and stopped to admire how the Stan Era was unfolding in our yard. Then Terry piped up to tell us about an old rose.

It was an unnamed china rose that Betsy had first seen in the yard of her great-grandmother, up in Kemp, Texas, a tiny town east of Dallas. Betsy’s mother, Jessie Still, had brought the red rose to her own yard in Temple. And with Terry’s help, Betsy had taken a cutting there, bringing it back to Austin.

Now there’s one of these magenta-red roses in Betsy’s front yard, five blocks from our house, and healthy descendants are growing in her two next-door neighbors’ yards. Terry said he’d bring us a cutting, too.

Lo, we come home one day and there’s a big blooming shrub in a pot, covered with buds. Terry had been babying this plant for the past year and generously gave it to us.

To have done so well here in Austin, a repeat bloomer like this had to be a china rose. But which one? Initially, we were fairly certain this was ‘Louis Philippe.’


From left, F.J. Lindheimer, Betsy Pirie’s rose, and Archduke Charles.

Photo: Human Flower Project

“No old southern rose garden would be complete without a Louis Philippe,” writes Emerald Goddess Gardens. “This old China cross rose is so associated with the south that it’s commonly called the Cracker Rose.  It was likely introduced into the Southeastern United States by Texas politician, Lorenzo de Zavala, who was Minister to France in the 1830s.  He planted it at his home in Lynchburg, Texas, near Houston.”

Betsy knew Lynchburg – and can tell you where just about any other town in Texas is. As a civil engineer, she determined right-of-way for the state during her long career. She also moved around a lot before rooting in Austin in 1937. Her very early years were spent camping in South Texas with her parents and brother, as her father, also a civil engineer, located a railroad “from Three Rivers to Tilden, through a still wild and sparsely settled part of South Texas brush country.”


Betsy Pirie and calf, Nueces County, Texas, c. 1916

Photo: Courtesy Betsy Pirie, from “My River Home”

In “My River Home,” her memoir of these years, Betsy writes of living in a tent with her family, of new shoes, rattlesnakes, Easter eggs. She also remembers a special spring:

On Sunday we came to Lost Lake. We found it but its name remained Lost Lake, so I shared a secret no others knew…Rather than water, I remember only the drought cracks along the edges; but our Lost Lake had flowers all her own.

Daddy didn’t know their name so they became Lost Lake Flowers. There were many of them and they grew nowhere else. Their bright blueness would stay fresh for many days after they were cut. I felt a loss many years later when we found them again far from Lost Lake and I knew they belonged to others, not just us and Lost Lake. Though now I speak of the beauty of our Texas Bluebells, my mind says Lost Lake Flowers.


Betsy Pirie and her rose, taken from a cutting off her mother’s rose in Temple, which grew from a cutting of Betsy’s great-grandmother Still’s rose in Kemp, Texas.

Photo: Human Flower Project

We have dug up the new Archduke Charles to make way for the gift Terry brought us this spring—feeling less like a gift than an inheritance. We are just getting to know this old, new resident: healthy, fragrant, with a sparkling white eye.

Who would like to stick one toe in the ocean, and take a cutting from “Betsy Pirie’s Rose”?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/16 at 12:10 PM


Great Story Julie,
I love the lineage.
It is what gardening is
all about.

Margaret Adie
a neighbor of Julie and Betsy!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/16 at 09:40 PM

Lovely story.

My sources tell me there were two ‘Louis Philippe’ China roses introduced in France in the early nineteenth century: one by Hardy in 1824 and another by Guérin in 1834. I don’t think Hardy’s rose is still in cultivation. Graham Stuart Thomas lists ‘Louis Phillipe’ amongst the Gallicas.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/23 at 02:50 AM

Have you read the Times article about roses in NYC?

Never thought of roses in NYC except the cut ones sold at flower shops or by street vendors.  Must visit the Cranford Rose Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (5000 rose bushes!). 

Berkeley is blessed with lots and lots of rose blossoms at the moment.  Why is Portland, OR the Rose City?

Posted by Georgia on 04/23 at 11:21 AM
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