When David Austin first released his new family of roses in the 1960s everybody raved and rushed to plant them. Even die hard Old Rose fanatics succumbed.
The David Austin story is one of mystery and magic – of brilliant breeding and marketing. He set the rose world alight with his ‘old’ new English roses – with the charm, smell and style of the old but with the remontant gene of the modern.
In his book, ‘The Heritage of the Rose’ (1988), Austin says ‘These two traditions have been brought together with the objective of combining the form, character and growth of the Old Roses, with the repeat flowering habit and wider colour range of the modern roses. English roses are, in fact, repeat Old Roses and may be said to carry on where the Bourbon Roses left off.’
It is a grand claim with some validity and Austin’s breeding programme is now some 50 years old and still they come. His roses have never been classified as a separate class but I believe they should be. They are significantly different to the Hybrid Tea or Floribunda. They are in some people’s mind in a class of their own. As Barbara Lea Taylor says – ‘I have been enticed, seduced and irrevocably corrupted by a bevy of bewitching newcomers.’
Initially it was easy to succumb. They held such promise and those early examples from Austin were in my view his best. They were fragrant, most were repeat flowering, large, healthy shrub roses but inevitably, as more and more were churned out, they lost something that was special. They looked alike, smelt alike and many were not healthy. For me the late Austin roses lost their charm.
Nancy Steen says in her book ‘The Charm of Old Roses’ that –‘all that is old is not necessarily good. Neither, for that matter, is everything new. So we concede that among our very best roses may be counted some that are very old, some that are reasonably old, and some that are quite new. … The best we have kept, some we have just had to let go, and others we have parted with willingly.’ So too with David Austin roses.
There has been a deluge of Austin roses over the past 50 years and this is a personal selection of his early ones which now themselves could well rank amongst the folklore of Old Roses.
I am a bit of a rose snob! As well as a coffee one! But some early Austin’s suit me, my style of gardening, my love a history and just for the simple beauty of them. I take my strong colours from the Gallicas so the Austin reds hold no allure for me. I also think that they are a bit weak and disease prone. The simple gracious thuggery of Shropshire Lass or Dapple Dawn enchants me – big strong roses with gentle colours. All these roses, bred for the English climate tend to act like ill-bred thugs in our warmer season but they do add a grandeur to the garden.
So let me turn to the dawn of the Austin rose and the era of his English rose. These early roses coming up to their 50th birthdays could almost (but not quite) be classified as classic old roses.
Of his four 1960 releases Constance Spry, 1961 (Belle Isis x Dainty Maid) was perhaps his most spectacular, not only as she was his first, but also because she epitomises everything that is lush and beautiful in a rose. The blooms are simply magnificent in size, shape and colour: a full blown satiny pink and deeply cupped. They are big, beautiful and generously flowering, with charm, exuberance and style. She is a big, bold ‘lady’ of a rose entirely befitting the big bold doyenne of floral architecture, and thankfully entirely lacking in manners.
Chianti, 1967 (Tuscany x Dusky Maiden) was a tilt at the richness of the gallica family. Bred from Tuscany, the blooms show its influence with a richness of colour – dark crimson with purple overtones – the colour of that once favourite wine, Chianti. The blooms, large fully double rosette exudes a rich old damask fragrance. The shrub competes well with Constance as a large well rounded shrub. Planted next to her you could imagine the rose toasting its better known companion.
Shropshire Lass, 1968 (Mme Butterfly x Madam Legras de St. Germain) the last of my trio of once flowering Austin roses, . Less well know, it deserves to be planted in the lexicon of early Austin roses. It has much of the Alba in it in style and toughness. Blush white flowers are nearly single displaying a crown of stamens. The blooms dance like butterflies on the top of the stems and emit a light fragrance. Another worthy large shrub planted at the back of the border to sit alongside Constance and Chianti.
Wife of Bath
Wife of Bath - 1969 (Madame Caroline Testout x (Ma Perkins x Constance Spry)) is the anomaly of the sixties as she is a little bush and repeats. The flowers are a light clear pink which start as tight petalled buds of warm pink opening to soft rose pink and paling towards the edges. Generous with its flowers she is impeccable in the garden for her grace, charm and good manners.
There are also four roses from the 1980s worthy of a mention and first up would have to be the 1986 release:
Gertrude Jekyll, 1986 (Wife of Bath x Comte de Chambrord) a masterpiece, tall and slender, with flamboyant blooms of deep pink. David Austin says of her: ‘The buds develop, almost surprisingly, into substantial well-filled rosettes with petals spiralling from the centre, often with the most perfect precision.’ But the most stunning aspect of this rose is the perfume described as that of the true damask. Share a glass of wine with her in the evening and enjoy her fragrance.
Mary Rose, 1983 (Wife of Bath x The Miller) is a modest charming little rose very much in the style of the old. It has large blooms of rose pink, loosely cupped and muddled. It is a darling of a rose suited to the front of a border as it is less upright and bushier than many other Austin roses and a great sport! She has Redouté and Winchester Cathedral to her credit. This charmer has only the slightest of fragrance which is such a pity because of all the Austin’s this one fits the ‘old rose’ tag the best.
Graham Thomas ,1983 (Charles Austin x (Iceberg x unknown English) is one of the must haves of 1980 Austin roses. Named most appropriately after the great English rosarian, Graham Thomas is a bright clear yellow with a hint of gold, displaying lots and lots of blooms on a tall upright shrub. It is indubitably the rose of summer for its sunshine blooms over a long period. It is interesting that Austin named a repeat flowering rose after Thomas who was an expert in the Old Rose families. Graham Thomas has a light tea fragrance, long stems for picking and is certainly one of the best.
Abraham Darby, 1885 is worthy of a place in any garden. Like Constance Spry this is a big fat lush rose with oodles of charm and fragrance. Big loose blooms with shades of pink and yellow show off over a long period and it always stops visitors in their tracks. Generous to a fault and richly fragrant reminiscent of myrrh, he is a handy rose for a veranda pillar by your doorway.
David Austin’s most prolific period was the 1980s which saw the burdgening of the English rose into the market place. Interestingly he wrote a warning in 1992: ‘There must be a point when the search for more flowers, larger flowers, or brighter flowers becomes counterproductive and eventually ends in the downfall of the rose concerned. In time, the public always tire of such productions and true values reassert themselves. We should try and discern the essential spirit of the flower and develop it. This, of course, is no easy matter, but it provides a field that is almost endless in its extent.’
A prescient comment as it was about then when I began to feel that marketing overcame majesty as more of the same appeared and I stopped my brief affair with Austin roses. I still love those early ones. I love the far reaching vision of Austin but I have returned to my roots and grow very few preferring the joy and charm of the old families.
Am I a rose snob? Probably. Do I like Austin roses? Some. Do I love Old Roses? Absolutely!