The character of the English rose by David Austin

Just after the war, I bought a bush of the Rosa pimpinellifolia hybrid ‘Stanwell Perpetual’. A chance cross with a Portland rose, it had the unique quality within its group of being repeat flowering. Its most striking features were its double soft pink flowers of old rose appearance and its delicious fragrance. It struck me that if such a cross could happen by chance, there was no reason why a once flowering old rose could not be hybridised with a repeat flowering modem rose to similar effect.

Within an astonishing diversity of roses, the old and the modem had come to represent two quite separate traditions and a combination of their special qualities could produce a rose superior to both. A marriage of the best Hybrid teas and Floribundas with their reliable repeat flowering and array of colours and the shrubby habit, charm and rich fragrance of the Old Roses could yield a new race of garden roses of unrivalled quality.

When I first put this notion to the test I cannot claim to have proceeded with a great degree of planning; I was simply an amateur hybridiser selecting roses that seemed to have the most desirable qualities. Luck must have been on my side as, with hindsight, I do not believe I could have made a better choice.

The first parent I selected was the pretty little gallica ‘Belle Isis’ (Parmentier 1845). A short twiggy bush, tough and reliable, it bears quite small flowers packed with short petals to form a charming rosette of delicate soft pink. I crossed it with the equally tough Floribunda ‘Dainty Maid’ (Le Grice 1938), a modem plant with stiff stout stems and large foliage and a beautiful single clear pink flower with golden stamens.

One seedling from this cross stood out from all the rest. It had very large full cupped flowers with silky petals of clear pink and a strong fragrance of myrrh. It was a large sprawling shrub of great vigour. It was named ‘Constance Spry’ – the foundation rose in the development of the English roses. As at that time I had not started the nursery, it was introduced by Sunningdale Nurseries in 1961.

The repeat flowering gene in roses is recessive and to overcome this ‘Constance Spry’ had to be backcrossed with a repeat flowering rose to ensure the recurrent flowering characteristic. One of several roses I selected was a Floribunda called ‘Ma Perkins’ (Boerner 1952). This rose had two excellent qualities – it produced a lot of seed that germinated well and it had nicely cupped flowers of Old Rose appearance. As I had anticipated, these crosses produced repeat flowering seedlings. By crossing these and bringing in further modem roses, I was able to develop a small group of plants that were reliably recurrent. It had taken some eight years to reach this point.

The early globe-shaped pink Hybrid Tea ‘Mme Caroline Testout’ (Pernet Ducher 1890) was one rose I used at this time. Crosses using this yielded ‘Wife of Bath’ with attractive cupped flowers of pure rose pink. In turn this proved to be a good parent. Further crosses with ‘Constance Spry’ gave me more varieties and although I still had only pink roses, the colour was exceptionally pure.

In the meantime I was also aiming to breed good red varieties. By crossing the deep crimson Floribunda ‘Dusky Maiden’ (Le Grice 1944) with the rich crimson-purple ‘Tuscany’ I bred the dark crimson red counterpart of ‘Constance Spry’, the wonderfully fragrant but once-only flowering ‘Chianti’. Backcrosses with various modern roses yielded only rather weak seedlings, so I turned to the excessively vigorous ‘Gipsy Boy’ (Lambert 1909).

I was surprised to find that its first generation crosses with ‘Chianti’ seedlings turned out to be repeat flowering. ‘Gipsy Boy’ must have had at least one repeat flowering ancestor. The best rose from this union we called ‘The Knight’. It still had weak growth, but flowers of a magnificent crimson. I was optimistic that vigour would he restored in later generations. A cross with the old Hybrid Tea ‘Chateau de Clos Vougeot’ (Pernet- Ducher 1908) yielded ‘The Squire’, which has proved an excellent parent and responsible for most of our best red varieties.

By 1969 I had a small range of English roses ready to be launched. As I was a farmer I was fortunate enough to have the land on which to grow them myself and in 1970 I formed David Austin Roses nursery to offer them to the public. The first varieties available included ‘Wife of Bath’ and ‘Canterbury’, which are still on sale, as well as a number now deleted – ‘Dame Prudence’, ‘The Friar’, ‘The Knight’, ‘The Prioress’, and ‘The Yeoman’.

At this point, in general terms, the seedlings were not as strong as we would have liked, in spite of selecting vigorous parents. Another consideration was that we had no yellow shades. We thus sought parents that could improve and extend the range.

A rose that had a marked influence on subsequent development was the vigorous Floribunda ‘Iceberg’ (Kordes 1958), regarded by some as the best of its class ever raised. It is exceptionally free flowering and continues late into the season. The flowers are well presented in open attractive sprays on broad, bushy and dense growth.

The first seedling from a cross with an English Rose was the most beautiful pink we had yet raised, but alas it was a martyr to blackspot and had to be discarded. We backcrossed it with other English Roses and came up with some excellent seedlings, including ‘Heritage’ and ‘Perdita’, both of which had good disease resistance.

Still looking for strength and health, we turned to the climber ‘Aloha’. Apart from great vigour, it had true ‘Old Rose’ flowers that were extremely fragrant. We were successful in passing on its strength and raised a number of vigorous fragrant varieties, including the strong-growing apricot yellow ‘Charles Austin’.

The third line we pursued at this time was through the old rugosa hybrid ‘Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’ (Mueller 1899). This was a cross between ‘Gloire de Dijon’ (Jacotot 1853) and an old rugosa hybrid. We crossed it with English Roses, including in particular ‘Chaucer’ and enjoyed one of those pieces of luck that sometimes happens in plant breeding.

Some of the seedlings were typical rugosa while others bore absolutely no resemblance to that species. Some of the seedlings had inherited their genes only from ‘Gloire de Dijon’ and what we had in many instances were hybrids with that variety rather than ‘Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’. They were of beautiful form, with attractive, silky petals, unusually large and very fragrant. These hybrids have yielded some of the most beautiful yellow and apricot varieties that we have bred, including ‘Jayne Austin’ and ‘Evelyn’. This rather looks as though I am suggesting how clever I am.

Another influential rose whose breeding record has alas been lost is ‘Mary Rose’. It combines much of what we have been seeking to achieve: good compact shrubby twiggy growth, excellent disease resistance and remarkable repeat flowering. Although it is not overwhelmingly fragrant, in many ways it is the ideal English rose. It has been the parent of some beautiful shrubs, including ‘Kathryn Morley’ and ‘Sharifa Asma’.

Other successful parents have included gallicas like ‘Duchesse de Montebello’ (Laffay circa 1835), the Portlands, particularly ‘Comte de Chambord’ (Moreau-Robert circa 1860) and some of the Bourbons. On the modern side, we have used the Floribunda ‘Chinatown’ (Poulsen 1963) and the short climber ‘Parade’ (Boerner 1953) as well as many others.

To me the most important issue in breeding the English Roses is that if they are to become a class in their own right they must display a distinctive personality and make an identifiably unique contribution to the great family of the rose. The basic principles informing their development include beauty of form, purity of colour, pleasing natural growth, attractive foliage and a strong fragrance; a very important dimension. Reliability and health are also crucial and it is the combination of all these qualities that determines the nature of the English rose.

The form of flower of the English rose is quite distinctive and entirely different to that of the typical modern rose, with its high pointed, scrolled bud, the opening of which embodies the shortlived beauty of the flower which when fully open most often presents a formless muddle.

It is rather a return to the form of the Old Roses, with an open flower representing its peak of beauty, like the paeony or carnation. The flower opens gradually in a succession of appealing stages until its full splendour is revealed when it is fully open.

The basic shape is typically represented by various forms of rosette, some with a degree of quartering, some with a button eye; there are many gradations – a full cup, an open cup, a flat rosette, an incurved globe, a deep dome, producing numerous beautiful and fascinating effects, constantly changing as the flower develops.

In English Roses we have looked for colours in the more delicate shades of pink, apricot, peach, lilac, yellow and cream, with a few crimson, purple and mauve varieties. We also look for tones which are pure and we regard this clarity and purity of colour as important. So many modern roses are strong, even strident, in colour and many have mixed or muddied tones. While every landscape picture may benefit from a dash of red, we believe that on the whole, roses look better in the softer, richer and purer colours.

Scarcely less important than the quality of the individual bloom is a pleasing and ‘natural’ habit of growth. Most modern roses tend to be stiff and upright in habit, bred for the individual flower in an era of the exhibition rose and the bedding rose. The English rose is essentially a border plant, with a wide variety of habit, from narrow and upright to dense, twiggy and bushy to widely arching, enabling the gardener to use them for a range of different purposes in his garden plan. This is a difficult area for the breeder, and while we have enjoyed a good measure of success, there always remains room for improvement.

Allied to this in importance is foliage; it is difficult to be dogmatic about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but on the whole we prefer the matt-textured, more heavily clothed form of the Old rose to the sparser, shiny appearance of the average Hybrid Tea.

We have sought to combine the best of flower, foliage and growth form in a single plant, but clearly some varieties score more highly than others. There is a considerable variation of habit in the English rose. ‘Lucetta’, ‘Golden Celebration’ and ‘Lilian Austin’ are examples of graceful, arching growth, while ‘Mary Rose’, ‘Heritage’ and ‘Redoute’ are bushy and shrubby. ‘The Herbalist’, ‘Glamis Castle’, ‘Country Living’ and ‘Wife of Bath’ are all short and twiggy.

Vigour and the ability to thrive under less than ideal conditions are also essential factors in our breeding programme – and all our more recent varieties have come through eight years of tests for disease resistance. The latter can be achieved more readily at the expense of beauty of flower but we strive to maintain a proper balance between these two.

The constant striving for reliable repeat flowering has put a great strain on the modem rose. This has never been easy to achieve even in bedding roses. The English rose is at an added disadvantage in having to sustain a permanent framework of branches as well as a continuous crop of flowers, instead of being pruned hard and being thus able to push all its strength into flowering shoots.
This is why the English rose tends to repeat a little less regularly than other modem roses, with two good displays early in the season and another good flush late on. Some varieties are more continuous – ‘Mary Rose’, ‘Winchester Cathedral’, ‘Redoute’, ‘Glamis Castle’ and ‘L D Braithwaite’ are good examples.

If there is one quality that we are seeking to achieve with the English rose it is `character’. It is an attempt to distil the essence of the rose – that unique blend of qualities that gives it a unique place in our hearts. Difficult to define and articulate, ‘character’ is more than just the sum of the parts I have outlined above. It is a certain softness, delicacy and charm.
It is above all, these features that we are trying to emphasise in our breeding programme. There are no rules or standards for the less tangible elements that make up ‘character’ but it is essential to maintain and indeed improve these elusive qualities to ensure that the concept of the English rose is properly appreciated and understood.

This article appeared in the Spring 1998 issue.