The Legacy: David Austin’s English roses

In our series 'The Legacy', Tiffany Daneff pays tribute to David Austin, the man whose name remains synonymous with roses even five years after his death.

Although he joined his father in the family business of farming, David Austin (1926–2018) dreamed of roses and, in particular, of creating the perfect English rose. This would have that old-fashioned ‘charm and beauty’ that had been all but lost in the popular success of Hybrid Teas that, to his mind, were stumpy and stiff, their colours too shiny and showy.

Aged 21, he devoted his spare time to crossing Gallica roses with Floribunda, hoping that, by using the best of the old roses (their beauty and shrubby growth) with that of the new (their colour and ability to repeat-flower), he would discover ‘a scented rose with rosette-shaped or cupped flowers’ on a shapely bush that flowered to the ground. It was not a route of which his father approved.

For all his shy charm and English reserve, Austin (pictured with ‘Crown Princess Margareta’, above), stuck to his guns. He was unimpressed by those who bred for profit and, although professional breeders considered his approach a non-starter, his determination more than proved them wrong as he became the most famous rose breeder of his day. ‘I was never that influenced by what other people said or thought,’ he once said. ‘I’m slightly dyslexic and I think I make connections that other people don’t.’ Roses had touched his soul: their scent ‘lifts the spirit as few others can,’ he wrote in his book The English Roses.

At his nursery — David Austin Roses, set up in 1961 at the family farm in Albrighton, Shropshire — 300,000 seedlings were raised each year. There’s barely a garden today without one of Austin’s gloriously scented, sensuous and generously flowering roses. Indeed, as the florist Shane Connolly once told Austin, if he could, he would use nothing else.

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