Tuesday, January 1, 2019

An American in the English Rose Garden

Me and David Austin

David Charles Henshaw Austin, a self-taught horticulturalist who spent sixty years working to create his vision of the perfect rose, passed away December 18th at his home in England. It was reported he had been “poorly” the past few months. He was 92.

Mr. Austin started hybridizing plants as a teenager and turned his attention to roses full time in 1969. His first big break came in 1983 when his billowy, fragrant rose ‘Graham Thomas’ was introduced at the Chelsea Flower Show. The rest as they say, is rose history. (He went on to win 24 gold medals at Chelsea.)

'Graham Thomas'

Very few people in life leave this world a more beautiful place than they found it. David Austin was one of those rare individuals. He left 230 varieties of his enchanting English roses. And he left many of us with memories of a shy, gentle man who “lived and breathed” the Queen of Flowers. This is my story about meeting the great rosarian in 1998. 

I shall never forget him.

My fave, 'James Galway'

A very successful artist friend once told me a story about the day he knocked on Norman Rockwell’s door. A bashful teenager, my friend only wanted to express his admiration for the great man and tell him of his hopes of becoming a painter.
Much to the young man’s surprise, Mr. Rockwell graciously invited him inside, gave him a tour of his studio, and encouraged him not to give up his dream of becoming an artist.
I felt very much like my friend several years ago during my first visit to David Austin’s nursery in England.
"Jude the Obscure'

As a result of a hybridizing program initiated in the 1950s, Austin captured the appealing features of Old Garden Roses (roses introduced prior to 1867), such as cupped or rosette-shaped flowers, and strong fragrance in bushes that have the repeat bloom and
 vigor of modern roses. I first discovered his roses while living in the UK and immediately developed a fully blown case of English Rose Fever.

I knew I was going to meet the 
renowned hybridizer as a 
result of an article I’d written on the popularity of his roses for Fine Gardening magazine. 
 I expected he’d say hello, autograph the copy of The Heritage of the Rose I’d brought along, and perhaps pose for a photo with me.
Instead, I was treated to a personal tour of his entire operation and talked with him for a couple hours about roses in general and English roses in particular.

Another of my favorites, 'Sir John Betjeman' 

The first stop on the tour was the nursery Rose Garden. Despite the fact it was early October when we visited, hundreds of roses were still in bloom. The garden features over nine hundred different roses, mostly antique roses, English and shrub roses. Pergolas draped with climbers and ramblers surround and weave through the garden.          

Courtesy David Austin English Roses

Within the main garden there are five individual gardens. The Long Garden is the main aisle from which all the other gardens lead off. Here you’ll find an extensive collection of old roses and shrubs. The Victorian Garden is a circular display filled with English roses and modern shrubs. 
Courtesy David Austin English Roses
Another informal garden features wild species roses, hybrids from other countries and an impressive display of colorful rose hips. The Lion Garden is a classic bedding garden composed of a mixture of hybrid teas, floribundas, English roses, miniatures and herbaceous plants.
'Lady Emma Hamilton

The geometrically designed Renaissance Garden is devoted entirely to English roses. A narrow canal runs down the center leading to a “temple” with pillars. ‘St. Swithun’, ‘Noble Antony’ and ‘Molineaux’ were particularly impressive in this setting. While strolling through the gardens, Mr. Austin proudly pointed out the many sculptures crafted by his wife, Pat.
'Crocus Rose'

Next we walked through several greenhouses packed with cuttings in various stages of development. Some of these would later be crossed with other seedlings. Some would move out to the trial fields. The not-so-promising would be trashed. 

The goal at the moment is to develop English roses with more vibrant colors and disease resistance. Mr. Austin is also interested in the creation of new and better cut flowers. 
'Munstead Wood' is fabulously fragrant

Every year, 150,000 pollen crosses are made by hand, that will produce around 400,000 seeds. (Meticulous records are kept of each seedling’s parentage). These seeds are planted after being chilled in a cooler for three months.

Approximately 250,000 will germinate and the resulting plants are evaluated for beauty, character, fragrance, diversity of bloom, disease resistance and potential for use in flower arrangements. 

In the fields, assistants evaluate the bushes for diseases and insect problems. Mr. Austin keeps an eye out for form, color and fragrance in a bloom. He flags those that appear promising with a bamboo stick.
'The Lark Ascending'
Years later, only four to six of the original 250,000 plants will make it into commerce.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the seedlings I saw in the greenhouse, or one of the bushes flagged by Mr. Austin in the trial fields, turned out to be one of my favorite English roses.
Looking back on that unforgettable 1998 day, I like to think I saw 'Darcey Bussell' at the moment she was taking her very first bow.
'Darcey Bussell'



Beth at PlantPostings said...

What a beautiful tribute, Lynn. You were fortunate to meet Mr. Austin and he was fortunate to meet you. How wonderful to have a tour of his property and learn, firsthand, about his amazing roses!

Lynn Hunt said...

Beth, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I was very lucky to have a chance to visit with a man I admired so much. I am grateful I have his roses to remember him by.

Sunil Patel said...

Hello Lynn, it was wonderful to ready your story of when you met David Austin. I was never much into roses until I saw the English Roses from DA and now they make up the majority of roses in the garden. We have around 10-15 English Roses varieties and they perform spectacularly well. One thing that you allude to is their cut-flower ability, which is very poor. I love to cut the flowers to bring inside but they don't last for more than a few days, which is a shame.

Lynn Hunt said...

Sunil, I saw some of your Austins when I visited your garden! You are right about most of our "garden" varieties. They aren't super cut flowers. (One exception for me is 'Sir John Betjeman'.) They do have a cut flower division though. They sent me a bouquet a few years back and the roses lasted for ages! I am ready for spring. How about you?

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