A rose by any other name...: Remembering rose breeder David Austin

The name David Austin is synonymous with roses in the 20th century and beyond. He died peacefully at his home in December, and is fondly recalled by Peter Dowdall.

I can’t imagine a world without roses. Well, perhaps I can but why would I want to? 

I foolishly disregarded or didn’t even notice them until my mid-20s, a latecomer considering I have been lost in the garden since I could barely walk. 

When I did fall for them, I fell hard, I now simply adore them and though some can be troublesome, the majority of roses do not deserve the ‘high maintenance’ tag with which they are saddled.

Yes, there are some such as the beautiful, pure white, floribunda R ‘Iceberg’ that, no matter what I do, will not last one season without suffering from either blackspot, powdery mildew, or both. 

Instead of persevering, I have thrown my hat at this cultivar. There are far too many others which bring me joy without the heartache.

I think my favourite white rose now, has to be R ‘Winchester Cathedral’. Often flecked dramatically with some pink, this is a David Austin hybrid. 

The pink goes back to its parentage, as it is a sport of R ‘Mary Rose’, also a David Austin rose. 

‘Mary Rose’ is a mid-sized, loose-petalled rose pink cultivar and ‘Winchester Cathedral’ is the same except white, it has the added advantage of being free flowering. 

Flowers continue to be produced throughout the season, until the snow and ice puts it to sleep for a few months. 

I even had some on my table for Christmas dinner last year. Both are strongly scented and this is, for me, where roses come into their own.

A garden should appeal to all the senses, it’s not enough to be visually beautiful. You should want to touch plants in the garden.

Fair enough, I wouldn’t recommend you run your hand through most rose bushes but ornamental grasses offer that. 

Water and taller grasses, as they rustle in the wind, bring sound to the space and roses bring scent, elegance, and a bit of majesty.

Roses have traditionally been broken down into several groups — ramblers, climbers, ground cover, shrubs, bush roses, and further into hybrid tea and floribunda. 

Then along came David Austin who changed the world of roses forever and his name has led to an entirely new group, the David Austin Rose.

Born in England on February 16, 1926, and from a farming background, David would, from a young age, visit the local nursery of James Baker. 

He was dazzled by the new varieties of lupin the nurseryman was breeding. It was at this time that the idea of breeding new plants himself took hold.

He developed a keen interest in old roses in his early 20s and soon set about creating an entirely new rose which combined the beauty and fragrance of old roses with the benefits of modern roses such as colour diversity, disease resistance, and ability to repeat flower. 

His first English Rose, launched in 1961, was ‘Constance Spry’, a wonderfully scented, vigorous pink flowering climber.

For 75 years, David’s dedication to roses brought fragrance and beauty to gardens all over the world. He bred more than 200 English roses during his extraordinary career. 

Another of his hybrids, the very well-known Rosa ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ has twice been voted Britain’s favourite. I suspect the result would be similar in Ireland.

Two of my favourites are the rich, deep crimson coloured ‘Falstaff’ or perhaps the copper-coloured R ‘Pat Austin’ which he named after his wife.

David Austin was rewarded for his outstanding contribution to horticulture, receiving gold standard accolades at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and an OBE in 2007.

David CH Austin OBE VMH, died peacefully in his home in Shropshire on December 18 last year. He was 92 years old.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

He will be sorely missed by his family, and also by all those who worked with him and knew him but he will also be missed by the world of horticulture and gardeners everywhere. 

His legacy lives on in gardens throughout the world. The David Austin nursery continues as a world-leading rose nursery and is in good hands.

According to his son, David Austin Jr: “My father, or Mr A as he was affectionately known, was a remarkable man [and] the passion he instilled will continue and we will hold true to my father’s vision when he founded the company almost 50 years ago.”

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