David C. H. Austin
David C.H. Austin, founder and hybridizer emeritus of David Austin Roses Ltd. in Albrighton, England, died December 18, 2018 at his Shropshire home. He was 92. His death was announced by his son, David J.C. Austin, managing director of the company since 1993.
David C.H. Austin will be remembered as the creator of English Roses. For more than 50 years, he routinely raised the bar of rose breeding as he and his team literally revolutionized the world of garden roses.
Today, the enterprise he founded has nurseries on five continents and offers English Roses to gardeners in more than 30 countries through traditional and online mail order and garden center sales.
The family-owned company continues to be guided by Mr. Austin’s passion for roses with beauty and charm, the hallmark of all David Austin English Roses. It’s a legacy the entire David Austin team is proud to honor, as they carry forward the work of their founder, patriarch and one of history’s singular rose hybridizers.
David C.H. Austin and Story of the English Roses
David Charles Henshaw Austin was born in Shropshire, England on February 16, 1926, the son of a Shropshire farmer. He fell in love with gardening as a boy. “I grew up in a family of readers,” remembered Mr. Austin. “One day at my school library I happened upon a magazine called Gardens Illustrated. It was filled with articles about flowers. It was the first time I realized that, beyond their beauty, flowers had stories too.”
From his days tending a small garden plot given to him by his grandmother, through his journeyman years farming with his father, to life as a successful farmer himself, he never lost his love of flowers. In 1947, his sister Barbara gave him the book Old Garden Roses by Edward Bunyard as a 21st birthday present. He remembers that it was this book that prompted him to grow his first rose, a step that put him on a lifelong journey.
By the mid 1950s, however, his passion for roses eclipsed his agricultural interests and he turned his attentions and considerable talents to amateur rose breeding. He was intrigued by the challenge of creating something new through the interplay of man and nature with science and mathematics.
He loved the heavily perfumed, full-bodied flowers of Old Roses, but found their very brief bloom seasons, limited color range and sometimes finicky garden performance frustrating. He considered modern roses much less engaging, but they did have desirable traits. They came in more colors than the Old Roses and repeat bloomed, summer till fall. Still, for Mr. Austin, these traits, while appealing, were not enough. He saw little romance in their stiff, uniform flowers on, too often, spindly, upright bushes. Worse, most had little or no fragrance. Incredibly, the fragrance had been bred out of them.
From these observations one of the great quests in the world of rose breeding began: Why not, thought the young man, marry the exquisite perfume and flowers of the Old Roses with the desirable habits and traits of the new?
His was a contrarian’s quest. At a time when breeders of the dominant Hybrid Tea and Floribunda varieties routinely sacrificed scent in pursuit of greater flower size and conformity, Austin believed that “fragrance is the other half of the beauty of a rose.” He was to make fragrance a hallmark of his program.
He worked alone, an amateur pursuing a quiet labor of love. From the Old Roses, he sought heady fragrances, dense romantic flower forms and bushy natural habit. From modern hybrids, he captured repeat flowering for long bloom seasons and an expanded color range
Hybridizing is a painfully slow process. Happily, the results of some crossings – including whether a rose was a candidate for repeat bloom – were identifiable within one year. Other traits took longer to puzzle out. Acquiring the ability to spot and follow up the qualities he wanted took years. He found the work exasperating – and absolutely thrilling.
Over time, he teased out refinements and pushed boundaries to get the full lineup of attributes he considered must have: gorgeous old-fashioned flowers with a delectable fragrance and individuality; a full beautiful bush; abundant bloom; repeat flowering summer till frost; an expanded color range; plus natural disease resistance and good health.
In 1961, he introduced his first major achievement: the highly perfumed ‘Constance Spry’, a magnificently beautiful rose with the lush Old Rose look he wanted. Lovely as ‘Constance Spry’ is, however, he was disappointed that the new rose was not repeat flowering.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Mr. Austin began to consistently edge closer to the “new old roses” he envisioned. His selections now were repeat bloomers and included a broader color palette. Increasingly, they hit the mark on heady fragrance. He saw the romance returning to roses — and felt ready to start breeding roses full time.
But, there was a hitch. One after another, the established nursery growers he asked to grow his roses for retail turned him down. Entrenched in a world still dominated by Hybrid Teas and Floribundas, they called his “new old rose” idea silly. “Who’d want them?” they asked.
So, in 1965, David Austin opened his own nursery devoted to breeding, growing and selling what he now called “English Roses.” Just as he’d gone his own way in breeding roses, he would forge his own path in selling them. He sold direct to consumers locally, and then by mail order nationally. Despite these efforts, his new type of rose was not an instant hit. Recognition of English Roses built only very slowly in the early years.
The Breakthrough Year
In 1983 Mr. Austin had his great breakthrough. That year he introduced three significant varieties — ‘Heritage’, ‘Mary Rose’ and ‘Graham Thomas’. All three were spectacular. But it was the truly groundbreaking ‘Graham Thomas’ that created headlines at London’s Chelsea Flower Show that year and vaulted David Austin and English Roses onto the world stage.
In ‘Graham Thomas’ Mr. Austin had dramatically achieved it all: a strongly perfumed, repeat-flowering rose with a beautifully formed flower in an unexpected color. The strong yellow of ‘Graham Thomas’ is not a color found in the Old Roses and was rare then even among modern roses. The press and public swooned over the voluptuous, cup-shaped blooms with a strong, delicious Tea fragrance. From this turning point, gardeners across Great Britain, and eventually to the far corners of the globe, embraced Austin’s entirely new kind of rose.
David Austin’s English Roses are known for unique charm and character. Today, English Roses are available in a wide range of colors, from the softest blush pinks to the deepest, richest crimson, plus whites, creams, yellows, apricots and copper.
As a group, they are renowned for their breadth of fragrance, with different varieties featuring delicious scents of Old Rose, myrrh, fruity, musk or Tea.
David Austin always felt it was the breeder’s ultimate responsibility to capture the beauty of a rose at all stages. “Nature, left to her own devices,” he said, “finds it hard to produce anything that is ugly. The work of the plant breeder should always be to enhance nature, not to detract from it. We should strive to develop the rose’s beauty in flower, growth and leaf.”
David Austin Roses, the Next Generation
For the past three decades, David Austin Roses Ltd. has been helmed by Mr. Austin’s eldest son, David J.C. Austin. Under his leadership, the firm has grown into one of Britain’s leading rose nurseries and one of the world’s most respected rose breeding, growing and selling companies. He leads a team of horticulturists dedicated to his father’s breeding philosophy in one of the world’s finest rose breeding programs. Today, a third generation of family moves into a leadership role as Richard Austin — the founder’s grandson and David J.C. Austin’s son — serves the company as head of marketing.
The company maintains a consistently strict commitment to the highest standards in breeding and trialing new varieties. Each year the Austin team makes 40,000 crosses between April and July to germinate more than 350,000 seedlings the following year. Successful rose breeding depends on meticulous planning and requires close attention to the smallest details.
To achieve the distinctive traits of English Roses, the Austin hybridizing team continues the ongoing quest to achieve new varieties with the mix of qualities and grace that set English Roses apart from others. Each final selection must satisfy strict criteria for Austin’s signature attributes of romantic color, fragrance, repeat bloom, a full bush, good health and charm. Disease resistance proved to be the ultimate challenge. Today, strides made in decades of hybridizing for this trait are evident. New English Roses exhibit unprecedented levels of natural strength, vigor and overall performance.
Following the initial selections, the most outstanding seedlings undergo eight years of field trials. Only candidates exhibiting a combination of all must-have traits move forward to be judged for that final elusive trait called “overall charm.” Each year, only two to four new varieties earn the title of English Rose.
To date, David Austin Roses has more than 200 English Rose varieties for the garden to its name. The collection features a surprising range of different flower forms, colors, scents and styles, plus varied bush habits and types including shrub roses, climbers, ramblers and tree roses.
Alongside the nursery and plant center in Albrighton, England, David Austin created his famous rose garden, considered one of the most beautiful rose gardens in the world. The two-acre garden hosts the National Collection of English Roses together with nearly every other type of rose available to gardeners, more than 700 varieties in all. The garden is divided into smaller themed areas designed to provide inspiration for rose lovers.
The Albrighton gardens inspired the design of David Austin’s English Rose Gardens in Osaka, Japan, which were officially opened in May 2012. It is the first David Austin garden of its kind outside of the UK and three thousand roses have been flourishing in the hot, humid conditions there. The tranquil garden featuring English Roses, perennials, shrubs and other plants is set in a beautiful rolling landscape with a koi pond and running stream.
David Austin Wedding & Event Roses
In 2004, the Austin team unveiled the results of another hybridizing quest: a 15-year program to develop a line of English Roses with all the attributes of the beloved garden roses but bred specifically for the luxury cut flower trade. In the U.S. and Canada, brides and party planners now have a choice of 17 gorgeous cut rose varieties, available through retail florists year-round.
A Distinguished Career in Roses
In 2007, Mr. Austin was appointed Officer of the Order of British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s birthday honors list for services to horticulture. On receiving the award, he said “Every day, I marvel at my good fortune to have been able to make a life out of breeding roses. It is always a great satisfaction to see the pleasure gardeners and rose lovers worldwide take in my roses.”
English Roses have won awards around the world for their garden performance and fragrance. David Austin Roses Ltd. has won dozens of gold medals for its exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. In 2009, David Austin’s rose ‘Graham Thomas’ received the rose world’s highest accolade when it was voted the World’s Favorite Rose by the World Federation of Rose Societies (WFRS) and inducted into its ‘Rose Hall of Fame’.
David C. H. Austin was also recipient of many personal awards. In 2003, he received the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society for his services to horticulture. In 2010, he was honored as ‘Great Rosarian of the World’ by, jointly, New York’s Manhattan Rose Society and The Huntington Library Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.
David C. H. Austin was an active rose breeder for practically his entire adult life. He and his late wife, Pat, an accomplished sculptress, had three children, Claire, David and James, and eight grandchildren. The beautiful sculptures that grace The David Austin Rose Garden in Albrighton were created by Mrs. Austin. Mr. Austin named the exquisite, copper-colored English Rose ‘Pat Austin’ in her honor.