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Tales Tall and True: Black Rose of Shepherdstown

By Staff | Apr 17, 2017

Our recent hint of spring and the upcoming “Back Alley Garden Tour” in May (see their Facebook page for more information Facebook.com/Back Alley Garden), might have had my subconscious pondering flowers while I was researching family history recently. I came across an intriguing story, “The Black Rose of Shepherdstown”. Indeed, Shepherdstown does have some beautiful and interesting gardens!

My first thought was, “Oh! This has the scent of scandal.” Traditionally, black roses symbolize tragic romance, death or a farewell, but they can also symbolize the rebirth or start of a drastic change. My imagination ran wild with the possibilities!

As I read through the story, it occurred to me that perhaps it was death, farewell and the rebirth of life, that was on the mind of the infamous Colonel John F. Hamtramck upon his return from the Mexican War.

This story, was told by Mrs. H.P. Schley about her conversation and walk through a garden with Mrs. James Shepherd or “Miss Folly.” When Mrs. Schley inquired about the “curious and beautiful rose” that covered a four-foot, old type of bush that was unlike the modern hybrid tea, “Miss Folly” proceeded with its history. Her father, Colonel Hamtramck, was fond of unusual flowers, semi-tropical plants and shrubs and was on his way back home, to Shepherdstown, at the end of the Mexican War. He broke his journey homeward at St. Louis, then a frontier post and his previous headquarters while he was in charge of Osage Indian Affairs. It was here that he saw the Black Rose. This strange and exotic plant made a great impression on him and he secured several rooted cuttings. Amazingly, they survived the long trip back to Virginia, where he re-planted them in his garden. Mrs. Schley confirmed with “Miss Folly” that the rose bush was the original plant. It had been carried longer than a month in the Colonel’s coat pocket on the long trip made by horseback. The Black Rose, as told to Colonel Hamtramck, was a Gallica hybrid, and had been carried up river from New Orleans, where it had recently been brought from France.

Well, I certainly couldn’t wait until May for the Back Alley Tour to find out if this rose still existed in someone’s back yard! (Although I have marked my calendar because I certainly don’t want to miss it!) I decided to do a little research to see if I could determine which garden it could be in. Col. John F. Hamtramck’s home was no other than what is now the infamous Mecklenburg Inn on German street. After asking a few knowledgeable residents, with no results, about the possible black rose, I headed to “The Meck.”

As with many locals, I have inhabited the lovely courtyard at “The Meck” with a pint, a time or three. I didn’t recall a black rose, but thought I would have “a look.”

I was in luck that afternoon, as the owner was in. He didn’t recall seeing a black rose in the past 20 or so years he has operated the tavern. However, he did remember a couple of small rose bush branches towards the back of the courtyard that seemed to be struggling, but still lived on. He said, “It has always been a couple of branches and it has never bloomed.” We walked over to it and looked. Sure enough, it was a delicate rose plant struggling to survive. He is hopeful that patrons will be mindful of it as they enjoy their beverages.

We are both waiting patiently to see if it will bloom.

Please check my facebook page at facebook.com/ABH Research for more information and to find out if our tale is Tall or True.