David Austin Roses’ Breeding Program:
Continually Raising the Bar
It is not too difficult to breed a rose that is resistant to disease. What’s difficult is breeding a disease-resistant rose that also has the exquisite mix of fragrance, form and performance that defines an English Rose.
Health and vigor have always been key components of the David Austin Roses breeding program in Albrighton, England. In recent decades, the team has made significant strides in achieving natural strength and disease resistance, while continually raising the bar for these important traits. Today’s English Roses are prized as much for natural strength and good health as they are for beauty and fragrance.
While growing roses in a monoculture makes the need to occasionally spray unavoidable, since the 1990s the David Austin trial fields have been sprayed for pests and diseases only at bare minimum levels, if at all. This practice further ensures that only the very strongest and healthiest varieties make it through Austin’s selection process.
The David Austin Breeding Process
The David Austin Roses breeding program focuses on romantic color, fragrance, repeat-bloom from early summer to frost, attractive foliage and garden performance, including health and disease resistance.
Once a breeding candidate satisfies these initial strict criteria, it must then pass the hurdle where its overall charm and beauty determine whether it has ‘the magic’ required for introduction as a David Austin English Rose.
The breeding program today is directed by David J.C. Austin, and Carl Bennett, David Austin Rose’s longtime rose breeding manager. In identifying final candidates for English Rose trialing, they are scrupulous in selecting only those that exhibit the must-have attributes:
- Significantly beautiful flowers, with a wide range of flower shapes and sizes and anywhere from 5 to 200 petals per flower depending upon the variety,
- Appealing fragrance,
- Attractive growth: a full bush or climber/rambler, nicely shaped from the ground up, with handsome leaves and flowers held above the foliage
- Good repeat-flowering from early summer to frost
- Clean dropping of petals after bloom
- Overall strength in garden performance, including resistance to disease
- Finally, a distinctive “English Rose charm,” with an elusive synchronicity of style, strength and beauty that the Austin team recognizes from long experience.
Thousands of Crossings, Years of Patience
In traditional selective breeding good parentage is all. But a program designed to breed varieties that meet such criteria must, by necessity, be massive in scale, involving many thousands of crosses of many parents. The David Austin breeding program makes about 40,000 precisely monitored cross-pollinations each year, resulting in about 350,000 seedlings to grow and evaluate.
Only a small proportion of these will display all of the characteristics required for a rose candidate move forward to further trialing. In the end, only two, three or four are chosen for introduction each year. The process is a long one. Typically, it takes eight to 10 years for a new rose to make the final cut and become a named variety that is introduced as an official David Austin English Rose.
Among recent* English Rose introductions that exhibit breeding breakthroughs in disease-resistance and overall health in combination with must-have English Rose attributes of excellent flower form, color, shrub and repeat bloom are: ‘Eustacia Vye’ (2021, mid pink and apricot); ‘Gabriel Oak’ (2021, deep pink); ‘Emily Brontë (2020, soft pink apricot); ‘Vanessa Bell’ (2019, pale yellow); ‘Roald Dahl’ (2018, apricot); ‘Desdemona’ (2017, white); ‘Olivia Rose Austin’ (2016, mid pink); ‘The Poet’s Wife’ (2016, rich yellow); ‘Princess Anne’ (2012, rich pink); ‘Lady of Shalott’ (2011, orange); ‘Claire Austin’ (2009, creamy white); and ‘Princess Alexandra of Kent’ (2009, bright pink).
* Varieties are listed by year of their North American introduction.