Roses are one of the most popular flowers of all time so we thought we’d talk to the renowned rose breeder and winner of 14 Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, David Austin.
David Austin Roses UK – provides cut flowers to Interflora. The company’s first rose, the fragrant Constance Spry, was released in 1961. Since then it has released nearly 200 English Roses.
David Austin Roses was established in 1969 and remains a family business, with David having worked alongside his father for more than 15 years…
How long has your family been in roses?
This nursery started in 1970, but my father was breeding roses from the age of 15 and he was born in 1926. That takes us to 1941, so I’d say about 70 years.
Were you always in love with roses?
It’s interesting because I didn’t know then how much I was in love with horticulture and gardening. I can remember my garden as a child. It was my parents’ garden and I knew all the plants in the borders. I still know where the irises were, where the equinox was, where the rubrifolia was and so on. You ask anyone else that question and they might be able to remember one or two things. But I think there is something about growing up in the countryside with a big garden that fuels the love for gardening.
Why do you think roses are so enduringly popular?
They are steeped in history; they go back centuries and are quite symbolic. They are close to things like gold. The rose flower is deep in our culture, so that’s a big part of it. As for being a flower in the garden it is one that seems to appeal to everybody.
They are great romancers, aren’t they?
Yes that’s a cultural thing; the romance of the rose is incredible.
If you had to choose one, which would it be?
Would you choose one child? It’s the same – you just cannot choose one rose. They do different things in different situations. The great thing about our roses is that it is a collection. I love yellow – we have fantastic yellows – but I also love pinks. You can’t say a yellow rose is better than a pink rose. What amazes me is how I like all of them to such a high level. They’ve all got something I love.
How do you create the perfect rose?
You have to distinguish between cut roses and garden roses. Obviously Interflora is dealing in the cut flower. For the garden it is about a beautiful flower. Then the most important thing is thinking about it in a garden situation. One of the great problems with breeding traditionally is that the customer base is dominated by production, not necessarily for people who love gardening. A huge number of breeders tend to be boffins – many second and third generation breeders don’t have that passion or association with gardening.
It’s so important that you are excited to put the new varieties into your own garden to feel them and see them in your own situation. They must be good garden flowers.
Bear in mind that roses go from tiny miniatures to 50ft climbers and ramblers. They are incredibly diverse. You are looking for different things in different situations. We are looking in our collection for different shrub habits. For example the Queen of Sweden, a beautiful rose, is practically upright and is great for certain situations, whereas some varieties are a lot more sprawling. Those are good for a different situation. As long as they add value to the garden that’s good.
One thing I haven’t mentioned that is a huge part of it is fragrance. It is fantastically important. We bred old roses with modern roses to get the repeat flowering from the modern rose with the look and charm of old roses. The great thing is that they are steeped in scent and that all came through in the breeding so our whole collection is full of all sorts of different fragrances.
My favourite is the scent of the Rugosa, which is typified by Wild Edric. It’s a musk fragrance, which carries in the air. I’ve got a hedge of Wild Edric and it is a fantastic rose, fantastically healthy, and it flowers repeatedly. Beautiful semi-double flowers, not full flowers, and the fragrance is to-die-for. To me it epitomises the beauty of fragrance.
The perfect rose has to have all these attributes and we are introducing about six varieties, which is whittled down from probably 60,000 seedlings. Every one is different. Over a 10-year period they will all be eliminated to leave us with just six varieties. It’s incredible.
Is there a good starter rose for people at home?
James Galway is a fantastic rose to start with. It is very robust and very healthy and strong growing. If your soil is not tip-top then I’d go for something like that. Wild Edric – based on the Rugosa – that’s a really good variety as well. All Rugosas tend to be very strong. There are a number of other varieties as well, such as Brother Cadfael, which is pretty good. Mortimer Sackler is very good in terms of being very easy to grow.
How do you name your roses?
We have a list that we add to all the time. People write in a lot and suggest names; we try and do literary names and those from art and culture. Then we sit down round about Jan and go through the list and pick out the names. This year’s new variety is called Princess Anne.
We’ve got one for Susan Williams-Ellis, who was responsible for the botanic garden series for Portmeirion potteries. She was a very good friend of my parents. There’s also the Maid Marion, a place name. We are doing The Lady’s Blush for The Lady magazine. Then there’s a rose called Cariad, which is a great name – it’s the Welsh word for love.
How many different types of roses do you grow here?
We carry 800 different varieties – about 200 of those are our own English roses. Lots of old roses because they are our inspiration. Ramblers and climbers, ramblers in particular are a fantastic addition to any garden they are superb. We have one of our own called Malvern Hills – it’s a great, great rose. I wish we could breed some more.
It’s a fantastic job. There are 140 people working here and we have an office in Japan and an office in Texas. We deal in every developed country in the world. We have licensees in all of those countries that grow the roses. We have an Italian catalogue, a German catalogue, a French catalogue. We are famous in Australia and New Zealand and Japan is a huge market for us. South America, Argentina and Chile are all keen on what we are doing. It’s a growing organisation and it is still me and my father – just the two of us.
Is it strange having a name that is synonymous with a flower?
It’s incredible. The name is so well known, the number of times you can sit on a plane or anywhere and get talking about where you are from and what your name is people will often reply with ‘are you the rose people?’ It’s amazing. It’s because anyone who gardens will have heard of us. Within a certain section of the public we are incredibly well known. It’s because my father has created something special. People absolutely love our flowers. We do flower shows all over the place and the reaction, particularly to cut flowers, is amazing.
I love what I do and anyone who’s got the ability to run a business should do it. When you are working with something so beautiful it creates a really positive atmosphere.
I am a mad keen gardener so it’s great for me, I can go home and enjoy the roses. I had so many roses in my last garden. I can’t always appreciate them here on a daily basis because there is so much to do. If you come to this garden here, which I recommend anybody to do, it’s absolutely incredible. It’s overwhelming sometimes if you like gardening and you like roses, or even if you don’t, you can’t come to anywhere more spectacular.
Does your father still work in the business?
He’s just turned 84 and he works every day. He’s had two bouts of cancer and he’s worked through both of them, almost non-stop. He’s got so many more things he wants to do.
The point is that these plants connect with people. I always liken it to music. Music connects with people and it’s a similar thing with roses. Going back to why roses are popular, it’s because of that. It’s because it is something that means something – the beauty of a flower is very special. It is very romantic. When you’ve planted something and you’ve waited for it to grow that feeling is amazing. Gardening is tremendously rewarding.
My father is breeding roses that won’t be launched for 10 years; he’s 84 and is still working as passionately as he was when he was 30. There’s a chance he won’t actually see the roses he is working on today but he loves what he is doing.
You can get our blog posts delivered for free by email - simply add your email address to the box below or alternatively grab the RSS feed.
Don't forget to follow Interflora on Twitter