The Rose

A massive book, with a simple, all-encompassing title like The Rose, brings with it complex expectations, associations, and inevitable comparisons. Every year numerous books on roses are published, and it takes genuine substance to rise above the quaint how-to or pretty picture book. Something more must be offered: a depth of knowledge and experience, heartfelt opinions expressed freely, true passion, and a critical eye. Of course, “rock star” status as a rose breeder, rose grower par excellence, and learned author doesn’t hurt. David Austin is all of these, and his writing here reflects a lifetime of living with, studying, and creating roses. For nearly half a century, Austin has been re-working the very idea of what roses are, and how and why we should grow them. As with Austin’s previous books, the writing is spare and sure, the voice clear, and, while this work covers familiar territory, it is with a sense of maturity and wisdom that he guides us through the intriguing world of roses—his own, and the remarkably varied forms that have come down through history.

At the turn of the last century, the era of the hybrid tea rose was in full bloom. Every season brought new introductions of roses bred for “bench judging” at shows and meant to be seen as budded blooms only, often lacking in scent and produced on ungainly bushes lacking grace and form. By the middle of the century, and mainly in England, gardeners began returning to the old roses that had been quietly fading away. Graham Thomas was most notable among those who reintroduced us to the rich vocabulary of the rose—words and ideas that had nearly been lost, such as “cupped and quartered” blossoms, “button centers,” and every possible luscious term for fragrance from tea and citrus to myrrh and cloves.

In the 1940s, David Austin began his effort to breed a “re-blooming Old Rose.” An industry was quietly born and the “English roses,” as Austin dubbed his creations, began to rise in importance. Rose enthusiasts took note, but the general public remained largely unaware until the publication, in 1988, of David Austin’s The Heritage of the Rose. This book covered the storied history of the old roses, and introduced a new type of rose, the English rose, with beautiful color plates and alluring descriptions. By 1993 and the publication of David Austin’s English Roses, the rose-growing world was hungry for change. Austin’s latest work brings him full circle, revisiting his years as a breeder and detailing his evaluations of roses of all kinds, old and new, yet always asking us to see them as whole plants, not just those wonderful flowers.

The Rose is laid out in easy to understand classifications: old roses, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, shrub roses, and so on. Austin’s English roses have been further divided into six main groups (useful for the enthusiast trying to understand the complexities of bloodlines). Overall, the book compares favorably with other works of this type: Austin’s earlier books, Peter Beale’s Classic Roses, Graham Thomas’s The Old Shrub Roses, and Steven Scanniello’s books on American roses. The photography and color reproduction are nearly flawless, lacking the impossible “pushed” colors of rose catalogs (even Austin’s own company catalogs). I took the book into my garden and compared, side-by-side, the blossoms and their photographic representations. They all matched just about perfectly.

There are a few small areas to find fault with The Rose. As with any book on plants (or gardening in general, for that matter), unless it is written by your next-door neighbor, questions of climate and adaptability arise. This is especially true for a book written in the British Isles. First time gardeners may have trouble determining the suitability of many of the roses discussed for their own gardens. The chapters on cultivation and use of roses are straightforward, but lacking in details that might be of more regional interest. In his previous books, Austin touched on growing roses in “warmer climates.” Indeed, those notes often provided for unintended humor, as when he reported that the rose ‘Graham Thomas’ might grow over six feet tall in warm areas; as many gardeners in California know, it can swallow a house when well grown.

With all books on roses the question of availability of cultivars and species arises. This will be a frustrating challenge for any gardener not versed in internet searches and mail-order hunting expeditions; if your experience with roses is limited to buying mummified, bare-root hybrid teas from the local big box store, this book may lure you down the rabbit hole of the collector. Beware!

A final question remains: is it worth buying? This book will take its place on my bookshelf next to other reference works on roses, and I will use it often. I wore out my copy of The Heritage of the Rose many years ago. It is a comfort to know that even aging “rock stars” can still bring it on.

Steve Gerischer, horticulturalist
Los Angeles, California