David Austin began breeding roses as a hobby, something to entertain himself with, little thinking that sixty years later his plants would be grown around the world and would generate a renewed enthusiasm for roses.
From an early age, Englishman David Austin had a passion for plants and gardens, but not for the hybrid tea roses that were so popular at the time. The “old roses” that pre-dated these hybrids were fast disappearing; only a few people, like Graham Thomas and Vita Sackville-West, saw their value and engaged in efforts to save them from extinction. Once introduced to them, however, David immediately fell in love with the old roses—their full-petalled flowers, delicious fragrances, informal, shrubby habits, and, most importantly, their charm. He also recognized their limitations: they only flowered once in spring or early summer, and their color range was limited to tints of pink, purple, and white.
David’s father, Charles Austin, was friendly with a local nurseryman, James Baker, who was responsible for introducing the Russell lupines as well as a number of delphiniums, phloxes, and other popular garden perennials. Through James, David became fascinated by the idea of breeding plants, recognizing a potential subject in roses. He thought that, by crossing the hybrid tea and floribunda roses with the old roses, he might get a rose that would look and smell like an old rose, would flower for many months, and would include tints of yellow and apricot. One of his first crosses involved a Gallica rose, ‘Belle Isis’, and a floribunda, ‘Dainty Maid’. Among the resulting seedlings was one that grew vigorously and produced large pink flowers with a strong fragrance. He showed it to his friend Graham Thomas, who immediately agreed to sell it through Hillings Nursery in 1961, calling it ‘Constance Spry’. Still popular, this cultivar might be considered the first of the modern “English Roses.”
Introducing the English Rose
By 1969, David had begun to achieve his goal; yet, when he showed his new roses to nurserymen in the UK, none were interested. Why should they put these roses in their catalog when the hybrid teas and floribundas were selling so well? he was asked. David decided to open his own rose nursery wherein he could offer a wide range of types and feature his six new English Roses. They were slow to take off at first, but, in 1983 and 1984, he had a major breakthrough with the introduction of three excellent selections: HERITAGE (‘Ausblush’), MARY ROSE (‘Ausmary’), and GRAHAM THOMAS (‘Ausmas’), now a well known and well loved rose that has been most responsible for the popularity of the English rose around the world.
Since then, these English roses have become hugely popular in all rose-growing countries. Gardeners appreciate the beautiful and (importantly) variable flowers in the style of the old roses, the wide range of fragrances, and, often, the more natural, informal shape of the shrubs. One of their main delights is a versatility in the garden. They look best in more informal borders, be they purely roses or mixed with perennials, but they also look superb in the beds of a formal rose garden or as a specimen in a sweep of ground cover. The warmer climates of America’s West Coast encourage stronger growth, and many selections make excellent climbers. They have also gained a reputation for being particularly tough, reliable, and healthy, satisfying the concerns of gardeners who are increasingly (and appropriately) unwilling to spray with chemicals potentially harmful to the environment.
Roses are exceptional in the plant world for their wide range of distinct fragrances; English Roses, specifically, are well known for such variety and for the strength of their fragrance as well. They include the classic old rose fragrance, tea (like a freshly opened packet of China tea), myrrh (aniseed in character), musk (often clove-like), and all manner of fruity and floral fragrances.
English Roses in America
English Roses have been in America for more than twenty years. One of the first areas to grow them was California, where two people were instrumental in spreading the word: Sharon Van Enoo and Clair Martin. Sharon is a long-time rose enthusiast and editor of the Potpourri of Roses. She featured the early introductions—WIFE OF BATH (‘Auswife’), THE REEVE (‘Aus-reeve’), and CHARLES AUSTIN (‘Ausfather’)—in an article for the Los Angeles Times that sparked tremendous interest. Clair Martin is the Ruth B & E L Shannon Curator of Rose and Perennial Gardens at the Huntington Botanical Gardens and is the author of English Roses for the American Garden and Old Roses for the American Garden. He planted English Roses at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, where visitors were able to appreciate their beauty and fragrance first hand. The word quickly spread, and soon they were grown throughout the states.
Most roses love a mediterranean climate, and the English Roses are no exception. The quality and size of the flower is superb, the fragrance is often enhanced and, albeit disconcerting to some, the growth is much stronger. An oft-repeated comment/complaint from gardeners around the world is that selections noted as reaching three or four feet tall in the UK would reach five to six feet or even more in hotter climates. GRAHAM THOMAS, for instance, is a four by four foot shrub that can quickly become a twelve foot climber in California. Fortunately, it is easy to keep them under control, and, in fact, I strongly recommend some fairly hard summer pruning to encourage a more compact plant and quicker repeat flowering. Certain selections do, however, make excellent climbers.
Thus, many of the English Roses have a dual personality: keep them pruned, and they will remain attractive rounded shrubs; give them their heads, and they will make excellent climbers to eight or twelve feet and still repeat flower well. Whereas climbing hybrid teas can be rather reserved in their basal shoot production, the English Rose climbers, being essentially tall shrubs, produce plenty of canes from the base. These can be fanned out or pruned shorter to encourage a good covering of leaves and flowers over the entire height of the plant.
With the exuberant growth of the English Roses in warmer climates, it is important to cut out at least some of the older stems each winter. I remember seeing superb plants of GRAHAM THOMAS in the gardens at Filoli in Woodside, California: the plants were about ten years old, yet looked much younger. This effect was achieved simply by retaining growth only from the previous season and cutting out all older wood. Such pruning helps to keep the plant both healthy and short, and it encourages the production of a greater number of flowers.
English Roses, like all other repeat-flowering roses, greatly appreciate good soil prepared with plenty of well-rotted organic matter, a generous supply of nutrients, and regular watering through the growing season. We have found that most English Roses are remarkably tolerant of shade; indeed, some, like PAT AUSTIN (‘Ausmum’) and WILLIAM MORRIS (‘Auswill’), benefit from protection against the hot afternoon sun.
David Austin, at eighty, remains active at the nursery, his main passion still being the breeding of new English Roses. The last few years have seen him concentrate on developing healthier selections, yet without compromising the beauty, fragrance, and overall charm of his roses. He accomplishes this by selecting parents that are as healthy as possible and might pass on that disease resistance. Seedlings are never sprayed against disease in the trial grounds— a severe test but one that is paying off. The more recent introductions are much healthier and more reliable than his earlier ones. Many gardeners do not spray them at all, and the plants suffer from little or no disease.
Recommendations for the West Coast
The one character that remains crucial in deciding which new roses should be introduced is charm. It is difficult to define but, once seen, is easily recognized.
Two of the earliest introductions, already discussed—GRAHAM THOMAS and MARY ROSE—are still excellent. Grown as a climber or a large shrub, GRAHAM THOMAS gives a superb show with its pure, rich yellow flowers and strong tea fragrance. MARY ROSE is easier to keep as an attractive rounded shrub about four feet tall. It starts flowering early in the season, repeats reliably, and has a most delicious fragrance— a combination of old rose with honey and almond blossom. MARY ROSE has produced two excellent color sports: the white WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL (‘Auscat’) and the pale pink REDOUTé (‘AUSPALE’). While both GRAHAM THOMAS and MARY ROSE are good for disease resistance, there are healthier selections available today.
One of my favorite English Roses (and Sharon Van Enoo’s, too) is GOLDEN CELEBRATION (‘Ausgold’), and I receive excellent reports on it from gardeners in warmer climates. The flowers are large, cup shaped, and of a rich golden yellow with a glorious fragrance that changes from the initial tea through citrus, sauterne wine, and strawberry to blackcurrant! It makes a substantial shrub or, if you wish, an excellent climber to eight feet or so, flowering freely as either. It is reliably healthy and has the extra advantage of relatively few thorns.
ALNWICK CASTLE (‘Ausgrab’) is a fairly new introduction (2001) that has already begun to make its mark; it was stunning at the Rose Hill trials in Whittier, California. The flowers are soft pink, cup shaped, and full petalled; they are produced freely on a neat, healthy shrub of about three to four feet in height. This selection offers a good old-rose fragrance with a hint of raspberry.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE 2000 (‘Ausromeo’) is the best of the red English roses and has done well at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, as well as in the Richard Nixon Library gardens in San Clemente, California. The flowers are a superb dark crimson; deeply cupped at first, they open to beautiful rosettes completely filled with 120 petals. The strong fragrance suits the color perfectly, being pure old rose. It is easily kept as a three- to four-foot-tall shrub. Other good reds are L D BRAITHWAITE (‘Auscrim’), THE DARK LADY (‘Ausbloom’), and TRADESCANT (‘Ausdir’); the last is remarkably stronger in climates warmer than those of the UK and seems to be happier trained as a climber.
In David Austin’s quest for healthy roses, he introduced THE MAYFLOWER (‘Austilly’), an extremely healthy selection. The first of the English Roses to flower in spring, it repeats rapidly, with a few flowers present between flushes. The flowers are not as large and magnificent as GOLDEN CELEBRATION, but they are charming: a pure, rose pink rosette with a strong old rose fragrance.
Many think of the English Roses as having softly colored flowers. Too many in one area might look a little dull and flat. The last few years have seen the introduction of a number of more brightly colored selections that, nevertheless, blend well with the others while adding a little excitement to the garden. A recent introduction that is proving successful on the West Coast is BENJAMIN BRITTEN (‘Ausencart’) It opens as a clear salmon pink and changes to a pure saturated pink with a definite fruity fragrance. Space prohibits me from discussing all of the choice selections suitable for the West Coast, but the following are particularly beautiful and successful introductions.
SOPHY’S ROSE (‘Auslot’) is a reliably short selection with wide flowers of a light red that changes to a strong pink (almost like ‘Reine des Violettes’) in full sunlight. It repeat flowers well and has a light tea fragrance.
MOLINEUx (‘Ausmol’) is outstanding in all climates, be they hot or cold. Another reliably short one, it flowers repeatedly with rich yellow blossoms that can become slightly orange. It has a good, pure tea fragrance.
JUDE THE OBSCURE (‘Ausjo’) certainly takes the prize for deliciousness and strength of fragrance: it is decidedly fruity, a wonderfully variable combination of citrus, guava, lychee, and sweet white wine! It can be grown as a fairly large arching shrub or as a climber. I saw it in Johannesburg, South Africa, covered in soft yellow flowers from top to bottom on a fifteen-foot-tall obelisk—one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen.
EVELYN (‘Aussaucer’) is not one that I particularly recommend in the UK, but it is superb in warmer climates. It offers some of the largest flowers of all and a delicious fruity fragrance to match; it is almost thornless, and its soft apricot flowers are freely produced.
AMBRIDGE ROSE (‘Auswonder’) is an excellent, short selection with beautiful, soft apricot flowers and a strong fragrance of myrrh. There is an impressive bed of it at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.
LADY EMMA HAMILTON (‘Ausbrother’) is a brand new cultivar in the US. In the UK, it has already been in gardens for two years and is attracting a great deal of interest; initial reports from warmer climates are certainly promising. Beautiful flowers of soft yellow and tangerine are set against darkly colored leaves; the fragrance is gloriously fruity and strong.
ST SWITHUN (‘Auswith’) is among the best of the climbers; as a bush, it may be a little stiff and awkward, but it shines as a climber, with large, full-petalled, pink flowers that also have a strong fragrance of myrrh. It is probably the quickest of all to repeat flower, produces flowers over its full height, and is reliably healthy.
SNOW GOOSE (‘Auspom’) could be maintained as a large shrub but is much better as a climber; we consider it a rambler, in fact, because of its smaller flowers. Unlike most ramblers, however, it repeat flowers well and is not overly vigorous. The flowers are glistening white, rather daisy-like, and have a lovely musky fragrance. An excellent specimen can be seen growing over the bust of William Shakespeare at the Huntington.
Roses in general are a remarkable group of plants; after all, what else can potentially flower for so many months, have beautiful individual blossoms, and offer a superb fragrance? With the English Roses, most selections possess all of these characteristics combined with an ability to harmonize perfectly with the rest of the plants in your garden. They are an extremely worthwhile group.