David Austin was an important figure in changing the way people around the world viewed roses. Before Austin, hybrid tea roses ruled the world. But that world was crumbling, and if you have ever visited a rose garden in late summer in parts of the country you will know why.

The rise and fall of Hybrid Tea roses

Hybrid teas were grown mostly for what many considered to be, at the time, the epitome of beauty for roses - the high centered, often brightly colored flower. There was one catch. When roses are bred only for the beauty of the flower itself, the plant as a whole can suffer. This happened about 100 years before, when exhibition roses were all the rage, and a group of roses referred to as hybrid perpetuals came into fashion. Since they were grown only to wear on clothing or to be exhibited, it did not matter if the plant from which these lovely flowers came was diseased, spindly, or basically bare. It was truly a pity, since some of the roses that proceeded them, particularly Portlands and Bourbons, were recurrent roses that were healthier. Indeed, it has been said by more than one expert that Portlands resembled roses David Austin might have developed if he had lived 150 years ago. Indeed, if you go to the David Austin site, you will see that he offers three Portlands for sale.

The emphasis on hybrid teas, the best known roses, led to their decline. Note this reference from Wikipedia:

"Most hybrid tea cultivars are not fully hardy in continental areas with very cold winters (below −25 °C). This, combined with their tendency to be stiffly upright, sparsely foliaged and often not resistant to diseases, has led to a decline in hybrid tea popularity among gardeners and landscapers in favor of lower-maintenance "landscape" roses."

However, many roses referred to as landscape roses are plants that, while generally healthy, produce small and not particularly interesting flowers. Individuals plant landscape roses for many reasons, but the beauty of the individual flowers is generally not one of them. David Austin noted this, and believed that he could produce more sumptuous roses without sacrificing disease resistance. It took a few years to produce these results in all climates, but David Austin ultimately met with considerable success.

David Austin Roses in the beginning

David Austin's early roses were very much a deposit on the end result promised, that being health, beautiful flowers, and re-blooming quality. However, some of these very early roses had wonderful qualities, so that some, such as the non-recurrent Constance Spry, which he actually introduced through Summerhill Nursery in 1961, are still in commerce. Constance Spry has magnificent flowers, tremendous health, and can be grown as a climber or a statement shrub. It is quite widely available because of its remarkable beauty. It was created by crossing a recurrent floribunda Rose, Dainty Maid, from 1940, with Belle Isis, a gallicia Rose from some time prior to 1845. Another noteworthy trait is its zone 4 hardiness. As a statement shrub, it is large enough to fill the space that would normally be occupied by a fairly sizable shrub, or it can be utilized as a climber.

constance spry

Austin's second rose was Chianti, also non-recurrent.

chanti rose

Over time, Austin moved to roses that bloomed more. There were significant differences between the results in different regions. Roses that bloomed continuously in England, California, and the Pacific northwest often were far less recurrent in harsher climates. In addition, Austin roses grow significantly larger in the aforementioned regions than they do in colder climates. They therefore were somewhat unpredictable. I found that many of the roses had only had two blooming sequences in a year, spring and fall, with no flowers in between. But as Austin continued the breeding process, the roses were not only more disease resistant, but they bloomed multiple times in harsher climates.

When Austin reached an important milestone when the began categorizing his lines of roses. He covers this subject in his book "The English Roses, Classic favorites & new selections".

Old Rose hybrids:

These roses are the result of crossing once blooming old garden roses with, rather surprisingly, hybrid teas (not normally associated with Austin) and floribundas (which he does not breed). The goal: repeat flowering from the hybrid teas and floribundas and the shrubby quality of the old roses. There are quite a few on this list.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles:

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is hardy to zone 5a, and it's a bit odd in that it can't decide whether it wants to be a shrub (4 to 6 feet) or a climber (6 to 8 feet), hence I personally put it in a sunny corner. It was introduced in 1998.

This is an image from my garden of this rose. It never got disease of any kind, despite being in a corner. It bloomed repeatedly. Beautiful, disease resistant and slow to fade, it blooms from spring to fall in flushes. The flowers are full and last a long time. This one can be grown against a trellis, in which case it will perform as a semi-climber. Some roses are rampant and get control - not this beauty. It's so good I have two at my new home.

While I am featuring this rose, there is something I believe should be noted for which David Austin is not sufficient credit. He experimented a great deal with red roses, and in my opinion he is one of the first hybridizers to produce significant number of healthy, re-blooming bush and climbing red roses. This is truly a great achievement, because red roses are famous for being disease prone. William Shakespeare was a disaster but he then produced William Shakespeare 2000, which was an improvement. Of course, disease resistance is often a phenomenon of conditions, but several roses have performed well in my garden and others. This is an image from my garden of this rose. It never got disease of any kind, despite being in a corner. It bloomed repeatedly. Beautiful, disease resistant and slow to fade, it blooms from spring to fall in flushes. The flowers are full and last a long time. This one can be grown against a trellis, in which case it will perform as a semi-climber. Some roses are rampant and get control - not this beauty. It's so good I have two at my new home.

A little endorsement - it's so good I have two at my new home, having grown one at my previous residence. It is hardy in zones 5a to 10a and has 110 petals.

tess of d'urbervilles

I should add that this group has some of Austin's best red roses. He has managed to create quite a few of them, and they are regarded very highly. All of these are excellent: Sophie's Rose, The Dark Lady, and William Shakespeare 2000. In the opinion of many experts, David Austin has developed some of the finest red roses out there - no mean feat. Not in this group, but Darcey Bussell, Munstead Wood, L D. Braithwaite and Sophie's Rose are all highly recommended by various sources for their excellent qualities. When I was trying to choose a red rose from Austin, it was very difficult because so many of them had superb qualities.

Gertrude Jekyll:

Another old rose hybrid is Gertrude Jekyll, was introduced in 1986. This is one of the most popular of Austin's roses, having been twice voted the favorite rose in England on BBC Gardeners World viewers. Strongly recurrent, highly scented, and hardy in zones 4 to 11, it is touted for its very fine disease resistance. It should be noted that Austin thought nothing of removing roses from commerce and replacing them with new and rather similar roses in order to increase sales. The fact that this rose is still highly available is a tribute to its health and beauty. It grows 5 feet high and 3 feet wide and the flowers have 80 petals.

gertrude jekyll rose

Jude the Obscure:

This is an unusual rose for David Austin because of the shape and the soft yellow color. Introduced in 1995, it has chalice shaped flowers, scented of guava, and advertised as strongly recurrent. The remarkable scent of this rose should be emphasized. Four to six feet, hardy in zone 5 to 10, this stunning rose has 70 petals. In my yard, it stopped traffic.

jude the obscure

The Leander Group

Golden Celebration:

Hybridized in 1992, this is one of many brightly toned yellow roses. Hardy in zones 5 to 11, this rose has a strong tea scent with undertones of other scents that Austin describes as sauternes and strawberry. It grows from four to six feet as is noted for being a good container rose. It has 75 petals.

golden celebration

Benjamin Britten:

This is a rose I first saw at The Chicago Botanic Garden. It struck me because almost all of the roses around it were spent and bedraggled (it was August, when roses are often at their worst in the Midwest), this rose exuded health and was in full bloom with no sign of disease. Austin describes it a glowing dark pink but my observation was that it had a distinct orange cast. Had it been a color that would work in my garden, I would not have hesitated to acquire it. Hardy in zones 4 to 11, it is extremely disease resistant. It was introduced in 2001.

benjamin britten

The English Musk roses

These are very much a mixed bag, with some hybrid musk, noisette and some of the English roses of the old rose group. They are quite delicate, and many of a very delicate scent.

Heritage:

This rose is close to legendary because of it's very beautiful, highly scented flowers, a marked exception to the overall description of this group. It was introduced in 1984 but is widely available under the name 'Heritage' but can be obtained quite inexpensively under the name of 'Ausblush' which is it's registered name. This rose does have some flaws. The gorgeous flowers shatter quickly, so it's not a good cut flower. It's a bit skimpy. It is subject to blackspot. Even David Austin describes its health on his web site as "poor". But the shattered flowers are replaced very quickly, and if it is positioned behind a wall or other plants, the rapidity with which the flowers are replaced, the scent, and the incredible flowers make it worth acquiring in zones 5-11. And based upon my experience, it blooms well in semi-shade. It grows to five feet tall and four feet across.

There is also a stable white sport call 'Rose Marie". It has all of the same qualities, but it is white.

heritage rose

Charlotte:

Introduced in 1993, this is a rose I often see in garden centers because of its reliability in the mid-west. It is related to the famous early Austin 'Graham Thomas' but is quite a bit shorter, with bushy, upright growth. Hardy in zones from 5-11, it repeats very well. It is highly fragrant and possesses excellent disease resistance. It was introduced in 1993. The very cupped flowers are lovely. It has 100 petals.

charlotte

The English Alba Hybrids

These were produced by crossing old albas, which are non-recurrent, with English old rose hybrids. They have the most delicate scents of all the groups, and what they bring to the table is the strength of their alba ancestors.

This is a small group, and interestingly enough there were virtually no images of any of the roses, even on the Austin website. My impression is that interest in marketing these roses, but of course I could be wrong.

The last group he set aside were climbing roses, but these were mainly roses from other groups that grew tall under the correct circumstances. Provably the most remarkable is :

The Generous Gardener

This stunning rose, which can reach 15 feet, is hardy in zones 4-11, has 55 petals and great disease resistance.

the generous gardener

Austin's legacy is being carried on by his son, David J.C. Austin.