Sepals and bracts, calyxes and chromosomes: The cultivation of roses inspires a certain affection greater than the botanical terminology might suggest. Such is the case with David C.H. Austin, the renowned English rose breeder who has devoted his life to developing distinctive roses known to gardeners, floral designers, and admirers around the world.
“My peers assured me that nobody would want to grow my style of roses. The trend at the time was for hybrid teas, though it seems hard to believe that today,” says the now 18-time gold medalist of the Chelsea Flower Show and winner of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour. “As none of the nurseries were willing to sell English roses, I realized that if I wanted gardeners to be able to grow them, I had to follow my instincts and offer them to the public myself.”
And so he did. After releasing more than 200 English roses, being appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and winning a lifetime achievement award, the breeder shared the stewardship of his namesake company with his son, David J.C. Austin, and grandson, Richard Austin. Their office, in the village of Albrighton on the Shropshire border of England, is also the location of their plant center, which houses two acres of rose gardens and breeding facilities. They extensively test each rose they cultivate: 50,000 crosses might yield 250,000 seedlings. They winnow down and test these plants over a period lasting up to eight years. The process results in three to six new varieties of David Austin roses per year.
What started as a hobby—inspired by a gift from his sister, the 1936 edition of Old Garden Roses by E.A. Bunyard—turned into a calling for this farmer’s son with a passion for developing new varieties of plants. “The book inspired me to order a few old roses, and I was able to appreciate, at first hand, their full beauty—their beautiful flowers, their wonderful fragrances, and their bushy, natural habit,” says the elder David. He also ordered modern roses to study their advantages: They flowered from early summer through autumn and had a much wider color range. From that, his hobby took root. He concentrated on developing subtler aspects of English roses: scent (myrrh, tea, and musk); color (blush pink, cream, and apricot through crimson); and character (repeat- flowering ability and good disease resistance).
The roses—whether found in garden centers, mail-order catalogs, or through luxury cut-flower wholesalers—have an avid fan base, which responds to the heady romanticism of the aromatic and robust, many-petaled blooms. Their natural grace is as appealing to brides as it is to gardeners.
But the poetry of the petals doesn’t end there. ‘A Shropshire Lad,’ ‘Maid Marion,’ and ‘Christopher Marlowe’—the roses have romantic proclivities even in nomenclature, displaying a fondness for local connections, literature, music, and horticulture and gardening themes, as well as places of interest and areas of natural beauty. “But above all, my aim is always to choose a name that matches the unique character of the individual rose. My first rose, ‘Constance Spry,’ was named after the British florist and author who, amongst her other work, was commissioned to arrange the flowers for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation,” he says. “She also devoted years to the cultivation of antique roses and was therefore a natural name choice.”
By Julie Cole Miller | Photography courtesy of David Austin Roses | Originally published in Flower magazine, Spring 2015
Don’t miss David Austin’s book, The Rose.Buy the Book
More David Austin Roses
- Growing English Garden Roses
- Make Cut Roses Last
- The Promise of Rose Gardens
- Our Favorite Fragrant Roses