David Austin, one of England’s greatest 20th century rose breeders, has died at his Shropshire home aged 92.
Many of us grow and love David Austin’s ‘English’ roses that combine the fragrance, soft colours and flat, quartered flowers of old fashioned, once-blooming roses with the repeat flowering habit of modern hybrid teas.
Growing up on the family farm, David was a keen gardener as a child.
His desire to create an entirely new type of rose was triggered by a present from his sister Barbara – Edward A. Bunyard’s 1936 book Old Garden Roses.
What roses were grown after WWII when David Austin began breeding them in his spare time?
Until early in the 19th century most roses in cultivation flowered only once.
Then the first perpetual-flowering species appeared in Europe from China, leading to the creation of the modern hybrid tea rose, smallish (.75-2 metre) bushes with strong, upright stems bearing large, high-centred flowers and blooming all summer.
Many hybrid teas are not fully hardy in the Northern Hemisphere, and although compact, they have a stiff, angular shape.
Gardening writer Christopher Lloyd memorably described them as “exquisite blooms on a hideous or, at best, shapeless bush.
In the 1930s, amateur rose breeder Reverend Joseph Pemberton crossed climbing rose ‘trier’ with hybrid teas to produce a class of bush roses known as hybrid musks, repeat flowering and with a good shape, including ‘buff beauty’, ‘Felicia’ and ‘Penelope’.
Until the advent of David Austin’s hardy English roses, these were the only modern alternative to hybrid teas.
David’s first introduction, the pink climber ‘Constance spry’ appeared in 1961 but wasn’t entirely successful as it flowered only once.
However, he remained convinced his vision was achievable and more importantly, would sell, despite the scepticism of most contemporary rose growers.
In 1969 he took the major decision to give up farming and open his own business.
Every time I make a new cross, I think there is something more beautiful to come.
His breakthrough came in 1983 at Chelsea Flower Show with the golden yellow climber ‘Graham Thomas’, named for another rose lover and friend.
The horticultural media took up the story and David Austin Roses took off.
In a 2002 interview with UK magazine Gardens Illustrated, David says starting out on his own was a stiff lesson in dovetailing running a business with the creativity of rose breeding.
He attached great importance to naming his roses, saying a poor name could kill a rose. Many reflect his love of poetry and are named from works of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Tennyson. A shy and modest man, he preferred the description ‘English’ roses to David Austin roses.
In 2003 he was awarded The Royal Horticultural Society’s Victoria Medal of Honour, held only by 63 horticulturists at any one time to commemorate the years of Queen Victoria’s reign.
David eventually bred more than 190 roses but said, “Every time I make a new cross, I think there is something more beautiful to come.”
David Charles Austin, born February 16, 1926, died December 18, 2018.
For nurseries offering English roses, visit www.davidaustinrosesaustralia.com/