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Welcome to the July 2004 edition of my web site! The roses I write about are the Old Garden Roses and select shrub and miniature roses of the 20th century. For tips on rose culture, pruning, propagation and history, see the "Site Resources Guide" box in the navigation panel at left. To return to this page, click on the "thorn icon" in the margin at left. Articles from the previous months are archived and can be viewed by clicking on the listings in the left margin. Oh, and please don't write to me for a catalog or pricelist.....this is an information site only, not a commercial nursery. If you wish to buy roses, see my sponsor, The Uncommon Rose.

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful
The Virtues and Flaws of David Austin Roses

by Patrick Hanrahan
Photographs by Paul Barden

I must confess that I love David Austin English Roses! Classified as Shrub Roses by the ARS, the David Austin Roses are ravishingly beautiful cultivars that combine the buxom flower form, soft colors, fragrance, and divergent growth habits of the Old Garden Roses with the repeat blooming ability of the more modern Hybrid Teas, Floribundas and Grandifloras.

At left: 'Evelyn'

I will never forget the first time I saw one of these roses up close. The year was 1994. At the time I was living with my parents while finishing up my undergraduate degree. In our backyard my mother had a formal rose garden with about 24 Hybrid Teas family members had planted over the years. That year my older sister put in a very different kind of rose. For one thing the growth habit was quite dissimilar to the bolt upright Hybrid Teas that I was used to. This rose threw out long canes that flopped all over the place. However, what absolutely riveted me was the first bloom in the spring. It reminded me of a porcelain teacup literally crammed to capacity with sheets of sheer silk. The translucency of the petal substance allowed light to diffuse all through the bloom illuminating it from within. And the color! The hue was a peachy pink concoction that reminded me of the finest Italian pink coral. As the bloom matured it got even more beautiful, the petals flattening out around a green button “eye” in the center without loosing cohesion like the high centered Hybrid Teas are apt to do. Topping it off like a glistening cherry surmounting a scrumptious sundae was an intoxicating fruity fragrance that reminded me of a fuzzy navel cocktail. That rose was 'Evelyn' and she would forever change my perceptions on what a beautiful rose can look like.

Growing the David Austin Roses can be a bit of shock, particularly if you are used to following “the formula” used with Hybrid Teas; i.e. weekly spraying and watering, deadheading, and hard pruning between bloom cycles. As a group the Austins (as some rosarians, including myself, refer to them) don’t have uniform disease resistance, flower form, fragrance, performance, and especially growth habit. In my opinion this diversity is what has held them back from obtaining their own classification both here and abroad. On the other side of the coin it gives us gardeners a wider range of choices for how to use them in the garden. However you decide to regard the “English Roses” they do have definite virtues and flaws as outlined below.

COLOR: Unlike the often strident colors of the modern roses the David Austin Roses come in soft subliminal colors. The term “watercolored” comes to mind to describe the hues present. These look amazing indoors or during the early morning or twilight hours, which is often the most comfortable time to walk through the garden. Such colors blend perfectly with other vintage style plants and compliment (rather than take center stage) the complete garden scene. David Austin has introduced a few vividly colored roses ('Gertrude Jekyll', 'Pat Austin' and 'L.D. Braithwaite' come to mind) but the vast majority of his roses come in pastels.

At right: ‘William Shakespeare 2000’, one of the more deeply colored Austins.

DISEASE RESISTANCE: A great myth about the David Austin Roses is that they are more disease resistant than modern roses (the Hybrid Teas, Floribundas and Grandifloras). I remember reading a statement to that supposed fact from the tag on a 'Charles Darwin' that I bought from a local nursery last year. What a joke! With all due respect to the Austin people their roses are not disease resistant, at least not as disease resistant as the once blooming Old Garden Roses.

Why? Well the answer is because David Austin used modern roses to cross with the OGRs to produce his line of English Roses. With the repeat blooming capability of the moderns came their vulnerability to fungal diseases that plague rose gardeners to this day. For example, all his crimson roses are descended from 'Dusky Maiden', many of the pinks are related to 'Comte de Chambord', and let’s not forget his frequent use of the Floribunda 'Iceberg'. Anyone who has grown these three roses on the east coast of the United States will tell you that they get black spot fairly easily unless regularly sprayed with fungicides. Iceberg in particular is a black spot disaster in hot and humid climates.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t any roses within the Austin group possessed of some disease resistance, but let’s be fair. There are at least a few modern roses that fall within this group too. Such roses can do very well with infrequent application of fungicides and may remain disease free without spraying in arid or cool climates (like California and the Pacific Northwest). But in general, David Austin Roses are no more disease resistant than your typical Floribunda and will need spraying with fungicides to obtain totally clean foliage.

FLOWER FORM: Ahhh, here is where we talk about the Austin Roses greatest strength – their flower form. Austins have blooms similar in form to the Old Garden Roses. The flowers look like pincushions or porcelain teacups filled with swirling petals. If you’ve looked at the glossy cover of a David Austin Rose catalog or gazed at the real thing in a public garden you can understand just how beautiful these roses are. Even more seductive is the fact that as the bloom matures it gets even lovelier, something the high centered Hybrid Teas simply cannot match.

Of course there is a flip side to all this praise. Sometimes the blooms can be too full. They can “ball” and fail to open in cool wet weather. Roses with deeply cupped or globular flowers are the most likely to have this problem. The good news is that David Austin has done an excellent job breeding this trait out of his roses. I think the wet British climate is a factor because if a bloom is going to ball then it certainly will do so in England! Another potential problem is when the blooms are so heavy the thin stems can’t hold them up straight and fold over facing downward. We call this “nodding”. As the shrub matures and the stems “harden” this problem usually disappears.

FRAGRANCE: Here is another great virtue of the Austins. It is a well known fact that fragrance is a trait David Austin breeds for in his roses. Consequently the vast majority of them are fragrant but it is important not to make assumptions. Too many novice gardeners automatically assume that every Austin rose on the market has a strong fragrance. David Austin himself states in his book “English Roses” that introducing a non fragrant rose is justified if the rose’s other merits are exceptional. 'Charlotte' is a good example of this principle. This butter yellow rose has such ravishingly beautiful blossoms, graceful growth habit, and decent disease resistance that it is easy to overlook the fact that her blooms are only lightly fragrant.

At right: Charlotte’

Another interesting trait is what I call fragrance purity. Most modern roses have fragrances that are a blend of several distinct scents, which is no doubt due to their complex heredity. Perhaps because of their limited gene pool the Austin roses often exhibit fragrances dominated by a single scent or no more than a combination of two or three scents. A good example is 'Graham Thomas', which has a strong Tea rose fragrance. The problem this can present is for those who have a nose insensitive to a certain scent, say Tea rose, and who then buy a Tea scented English rose. For folks with sniffers insensitive to Tea rose 'Graham Thomas' is no more fragrant than cardboard.

Of course, no discussion on fragrance would be complete without mentioning myrrh. Many of the David Austin English Roses have a peculiar fragrance described by the late Graham Thomas as being similar in smell to the resin from the Commiphora tree (David Austin 1996. The Fragrance of the English Rose - Unraveling the complex scent of the rose. In David Austin’s English Roses.: page 42. Conran Octopus Limited.). To me myrrh smells like anise or licorice with a definite medicinal aftertaste. Myrrh isn’t to everyone’s liking so I advise people to always smell myrrh scented roses first before buying.

GROWTH HABIT: Trying to generalize the growth habits of the English Roses can be an aggravating exercise in futility. To be frank the Austins have every single type of growth habit imaginable. They can be short, medium, tall, climbing, spreading, mounding, bushy, arching and combinations thereof. This is both an asset and a deficit. As an asset it gives the gardener a wide range of choices, provided you know which one to choose.

Ah, there is the deficit. Unless you know someone who grows them in abundance you had better be prepared to do some research before buying because otherwise you’ll have no idea how to prune them. The Austin people usually affix tags to their roses describing their growth habit but let’s face it – America isn’t England and with the sole exception of the Pacific Northwest has very different climatic conditions. The United States has every single climate (depending on region) known to man and the Austins are notorious to reacting differently to each one. This can be infuriating because an Austin rose that does beautifully in Southern California may be a dog in the humid Southeastern part of the States. Look up the climate zones on a map and they might even in be the same zone but that dang rose sure doesn’t look the same, except for the blooms.

And that gets us to the Jolly Green Giant Syndrome. This peculiar growth habit is characterized by long lanky canes that sprawl all over the place. It is caused by roses breed in a cool overcast environment reacting to our abundant sunshine and fertile soil. 'Gertrude Jekyll' is a perfect example. Just trying to train Gertie’s viciously thorny canes that whip back and forth in the breeze can be quite an adventure.

This type of growth habit isn’t new. We see it with the Hybrid Perpetuals. Your best bet with one of these monsters is to attack the shrub with your pruning shears cutting it back down to size. You can also try pegging the canes to the ground with garden hooks or tying the tips of the canes to their bases forming a big loop. Some cultivars can be grown as climbers but you’d better ask someone who has grown them first because a lot of the Jolly Green Giant’s do not bloom along the entire length of their canes.

For the most part David Austin has done a fair job breeding this trait out of his roses. The majority of his newer introductions are much more moderate in size and bushier in profile, but it does continue to crop up. For example, the new Austin 'Teasing Georgia' is a hefty lass. Recently a friend of mine accidentally took a tumble into one while trying to prune the 10 feet plus canes. She had to seek medical attention to have the embedded thorns removed!

HARDINESS: Given their Old Garden Rose ancestry it is easy to make the assumption that the Austin Roses are winter hardy. The real answer is yes and no. Are they more winter hardy than your average Hybrid Tea (winter hardy to zone 7 and possibly 6)? The answer is yes. Are they winter hardy to zones 3 and 4? Most are not. The Austins are true hybrids and the vast majority can withstand a zone 5 winter but not much colder than that. A few seem to be throwbacks to the older roses and can get through a frigid winter if their owners provide some form of winter protection, but just as many are tender north of zone 6. 'Jayne Austin', a buff beige cultivar, is often recommended for colder zones. The David Austin website at recommends for zone 4 'Abraham Darby' (apricot), 'Charlotte' (light yellow), 'L.D. Braithwaite' (bright red), 'Mary Rose' (cool pink), 'Sharifa Asma' (light warm pink) as well as few others.

At left: Sharifa Asma

REPEAT BLOOM: One of the common complaints about the Austins is their poor repeat bloom. For the most part this is true of the older cultivars. 'Gertrude Jekyll' for example is notorious for her lousy repeat. The reason of course has to do with genetics. It took hybridizers over a hundred years since La France was introduced in 1867 to get Hybrid Teas and Floribundas to the point that they are the fastest repeaters outside of the China class. The fact that David Austin has been able to do the same with even a few of his cultivars within his own lifetime is an amazing feat. However, more work still needs to be done to achieve consistency within the collection as the Austin people are still releasing cultivars with poor repeat. As such it is always prudent to ask someone about an individual rose’s ability to repeat before buying. A few cultivars with good to excellent repeat include 'Fair Bianca' (white), 'Heritage' (pink), 'Jude the Obscure' (buff yellow), 'Molineux' (rich yellow), 'Tamora' (apricot), and 'William Shakespeare 2000' (crimson).

SHADE TOLERANCE: While no rose will do well in deep shade a rare few are quite happy in places that receive as little as four hours of direct sunlight a day. Some of the David Austin Roses fall into this group. I believe there are two factors responsible for this wonderful ability. First, David Austin used shade tolerant roses in his breeding program. Remember when I criticized 'Iceberg' for its susceptibility to black spot in the prior discussion about disease resistance? Well that is true but 'Iceberg' does have some merits primarily good repeat bloom, graceful growth habit and shade tolerance. 'Iceberg' passed on these attributes to Heritage and some the other Austin roses.

At right: ‘Fair Bianca’

The other factor is the climate of Great Britain, which is characterized by moist air, extensive cloud cover and cool temps. Sunshine hours are fewer than in more southerly climates and average between 3 and 4 hours a day year round, with 4.5 to 6 hours during the summer (Encyclopedia Americana, 2000 ed., p.228). Thusly, it should come as no surprise that a good chunk of the Austins are shade tolerant!

Well that concludes my layman’s discussion of the David Austin English Roses. As you have learned these roses aren’t perfect but neither are most of the other modern repeat blooming roses commonly found in American gardens. As a group their beauty of form and fragrance is unmatched. They offer unlimited design options but not without a price. English Roses cannot be dumped into the ground, forgotten, and then expected to thrive. They require regular spraying with fungicides to ward off their propensity for fungal diseases, frequent applications of food/water to support their bloom cycles, and dedication on the part of the gardener to learn about their individual growth habits.

ABOUT ME: I am a middle aged man living out his American dream in a modest house on a comfortable corner lot in suburban Maryland outside of Washington D.C. I do not belong to a slew of rose societies, have a degree in horticulture, sit on rose society boards, or exhibit roses. Nor do I grow 500+ roses on a large estate like property. I just have a passion for roses, especially the David Austin Roses. I have been growing roses for close to 30 years and the English Roses since 1994. Enough said.

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