When one thinks of England and it´s enchanting wonders the association with roses immediately comes into mind. Yet there are some that could not be more quintessentially British: David Austin Roses.
David Austin Senior started out as a teenager breeding roses as a hobby in the forties never imagining that one day it would develop into a flourishing business that would sell his roses worldwide. Ever since his early years his passion grew into a flourishing business of the same name and over the years he has introduced over 200 varieties of English roses which today are renowned for their abundant beauty, delightful fragrance and excellent repeat flowering.
David Austin Senior passed away in December 2018 leaving behind a great legacy.
It remains a family run business with his son David now running the business and being responsible for developing the David Austin cut flower roses as well as further increasing trade in foreign markets.
I had the pleasure to talk to David Austin Senior about his passion for roses and the history of his brilliant career and hard work that made him being honoured with the OBE by the Queen for his services to horticulture and being named "Great Rosarian of the World”:
Looking back to the beginning of breeding roses. What has influenced and inspired your attention to Roses in the first place?
When I was young the roses most commonly seen were the Hybrid Teas which I didn’t like at all and needed quite a lot of input to keep them healthy. My sister gave me a book on Old Roses which were fast disappearing but which immediately appealed to me. They had such charm and beauty which, to me, the Hybrid Teas totally lacked. I did however realise their limitations – the fact that the Old Roses didn’t repeat flower and had a narrow colour range with no yellow and apricot. That’s when I thought I could perhaps try and breed new varieties that would combine the charm, beauty and fragrance of the Old Roses with the repeat flowering and wider colour range of the modern roses.
Have you always had a connection with horticulture?
Yes from a very early age. My grandmother and their gardener at that time used to encourage me, I had my own plot in the garden and I was given seeds to sow. I struggled at school because of my dyslexia but found a copy of Gardens Illustrated which I loved. It was a friend of my father’s – James Baker – who got me interested in breeding plants. He was responsible for the introduction of many perennials. including the Russel Lupins.
What made you introduce “Constance Spry” as your first Rose onto the market?
When he first saw it he thought that, with its very large, pure pink and strongly fragrant flowers, it was good enough to be introduced. It was one of his very early seedlings so he had a good slice of beginner’s luck as he really didn’t have any knowledge or experience of breeding roses. It wasn’t actually him who introduced it but Graham Thomas as my father hadn’t started the nursery then. Graham was nursery manager at Hillings nursery that sold a wide range of plants including many roses and he was a leading authority on Old Roses.
What has been a highlight in your career as a Rosarian besides David Autstin Roses winning 22 RHS Gold medals at Chelsea?
It’s actually 23 now! It was being presented with the OBE for services to horticulture. But also it has been the gradual improvement of my English Roses into what they are today – a group of roses that I am proud of and that are very well loved around the world.
Which Rose´s scent reminds you most of your early days of breeding roses?
It is the Old Rose fragrance as those were the first roses I fell in love with. But also the myrrh fragrance as Constance Spry has this very strongly and has appeared many times since in my roses. It is a bit of a mystery why it did appear as it is only in one of the parents – Belle Isis and then only fairly faintly. The myrrh fragrance has nothing to do with the biblical myrrh but comes from the Latin name of the herb Sweet Cicely – Myrrhis odorata – which has an aniseed type scent.
What has been the main challenge when it comes to creating a new breed of Roses?
Trying to combine everything into a rose. Ideally I want my roses to not only have beautiful individual blooms, flower freely, have a wonderful fragrance and be healthy but also to have an overall beauty and have that magic character of charm that is easy to recognise but difficult to describe. Luckily roses for the most part are actually quite easy to cross and raise seedlings from but by far the great majority of resulting seedlings are far from the desired goal especially for disease resistance.
Is there anything you would do differently when looking back at your blooming career?
I am immensely proud of what I haver achieved, I don’t think I would change anything.
What advice would you give a young Horticulturist?
It is a marvellous trade to be in especially as the great majority of horticulturalists are such friendly, kind people. It is very varied too so if you are keen on plants and gardens it should be possible to find a sector that suits you perfectly.
Is there a particular aspect that influences your choice of name for a Rose?
I get my inspiration from a number of different sources. I often like to use names from the arts whether they are painters, musicians, writers or characters in poems and novels. I like them to be very British and perhaps quite local if I can. Very importantly they need to sound good, to roll off the tongue nicely. The easiest way to kill off a good rose is to give it a bad name.
Which Rose has yet to be drawn from your imagination?
It is the rose that I described above – a rose that combines all the positive characters of beautiful flower, wonderful fragrance, disease resistance etc with overall beauty and charm. Beauty comes in many different forms so the bloom could have few or many petals and the size of the shrub short or tall. I feel I am certainly getting closer to it but in practice it is a very difficult goal to actually achieve.
If you have not seen the incredible varieties of abundant blooms then head on over to the homepage: https://www.davidaustinroses.co.uk
Or follow the family run business on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/david_austin_roses
And if you have the chance indulge yourself to a trip to his gardens in Wolverhampton in June when all the Roses are blooming and the Air is filled with heavily scents.