Gardening Obituary Roses

Death of the Creator of English Roses

David C.H. Austin and Bertie. Text and photos mostly supplied by

David C. H. Austin
February 16, 1926 – December 18, 2018

Hundreds of thousands of gardeners the world over have grown English roses, known for their old-fashioned, abundant, highly fragrant blooms and tough-as-nails constitution. Their creator, hybridizer David C.H. Austin, died December 18, 2018 at his home in Shropshire, England. He was 92. 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. 

I only met David Austin once, very briefly, in his beautiful rose garden in Albrighton, England in 2001, during a garden tour with other members of the Garden Writers Association. He patiently explained how he created new roses and demonstrated how graft to promising seedlings onto sturdy rootstock as part of the trialing process. He would have been about 75 at this point, but was still actively involved in hybridizing.

Today, the enterprise he founded has nurseries on five continents and offers English roses to gardeners in 30 countries through mail-order, online and garden center sales.

David C.H. Austin and Story of 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 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.

David Austin in the field.

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? 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 blooming 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 disease-resistance and good health.

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‘Constance Spry’ , the first “English” rose.

In 1961, he introduced his first real achievement: the highly perfumed ‘Constance Spry’, a new rose that boasted a lush old rose look but still bloomed only briefly, once per season.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Mr. Austin began to consistently edge closer to the “new old roses” he envisioned. His selections were repeat bloomers and included a broader broad color palette. Increasingly, they hit the mark on heady fragrance. He saw the romance returning to roses – and felt ready to turn to breeding full time.

But there was a hitch. Retail rose nurseries weren’t interested in his roses! Entrenched in the world of 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 went his own way when breeding roses, he would forge his own path for 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. After their initial introduction, recognition of English roses came very slowly.

The Breakthrough Year

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English rose ‘Graham Thomas’

It wasn’t until 1983 that Mr. Austin had his great breakthrough. That year he introduced three important varieties – ‘Heritage’, ‘Mary Rose’ and ‘Graham Thomas’. All three were spectacular, but it was the truly ground-breaking ‘Graham Thomas’ that stole the show 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 achieved a strongly perfumed, repeat-flowering rose with a beautifully formed flower in an unusually rich shade of pure yellow – a color not found in old roses and rare even among modern roses. The press and public swooned over the voluptuous, cup-shaped blooms with a strong, fresh tea rose fragrance laced with a cool violet character. 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 roses are known for their charm and unique character. English roses are available in a wide range of pure, glowing colors, from the softest blush pinks to the deepest, richest crimson, plus soft creams and ecru, yellows, apricots and copper.

His English Roses have also become renowned for the strength and complexity of their fragrances – including the old rose scent, the scent of myrrh, tea, musk plus other lovely fragrances, including fruit scents. English roses have a far greater range than is to be found in any other kind of flower.

David Austin Roses, the Next Generation

For the past two 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 the world’s most respected rose breeding, growing and selling enterprises. He leads a team of horticulturists dedicated to his father’s breeding philosophy in one of the world’s finest breeding programs for garden roses.

Each year the Austin team makes 50,000 crosses between April and July to germinate more than 250,000 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 and good health. Disease resistance proved to be the ultimate challenge. Today, in new introductions year after year, Austin’s team is achieving ever stronger levels of natural strength, based on decades of concerted hybridizing for health and vigor.

Following the initial selections, the most outstanding seedlings undergo up to eight years of field trials. Only candidates exhibiting all must-haves traits in synthesis move forward to be judged for that indescribable but magic element “charm.” Each year, only two to four new varieties earn the title of English rose.

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English rose ‘Dame Judi Dench’

To date, David Austin Roses has introduced more than 240 English Rose varieties for the garden. Rich variation is seen throughout the collection with a surprisingly broad range of different flower forms, colors, scents and styles, plus varied bush habits and types including shrub roses, climbers and ramblers.

International in Scope
English roses are grown by license in approximately 30 countries around the world, with representatives in almost every rose-growing nation and supplying nearly all garden centers in the UK, together with many prominent outlets in Europe, USA, Russia, Canada and Japan, as well as supplying garden designers and other nurseries.

In North America, the David Austin Roses catalog, the Handbook of Roses, features 114 English Roses plus a handpicked selection of 60 desirable old roses, modern roses, climbers, ramblers and species roses. These are available, winter through spring, by mail order from as bare root roses.

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David Austin Rose Gardens

Alongside the nursery and plant center in Albrighton, England, David Austin created his famous rose garden, which many consider to be one of the most beautiful rose gardens in the world. The two acre display garden features 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 areas, each with its own theme, designed to provide inspiration for rose lovers.

A Distinguished Career in Roses

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David C.H. Austin greeting Queen Elizabeth at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2016.

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”.

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The 200th English rose, ‘Munstead Wood’.

In that same year Mr. Austin introduced his 200th English Rose at the Chelsea Flower Show, the beautiful deep crimson – and fragrant – ‘Munstead Wood’.

English Roses have won many awards around the world for their garden performance as shrubs or as climbers, as well as for fragrance, while 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 highest accolade in the rose world when it was voted the World’s Favorite Rose by the World Federation of Rose Societies (WFRS) and was inducted into the society’s ‘Rose Hall of Fame’.

David C. H. Austin was also recipient of many personal awards, including the Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society in 2003 for his services to horticulture, and he was honored as the 2010 ‘Great Rosarian of the World’ by The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California and New York’s Manhattan Rose Society.

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Rose ‘Pat Austin’

David C. H. Austin was an active rose breeder 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 Mr. Austin’s Albrighton rose garden were created by Mrs. Austin. Mr. Austin named the exquisite copper-colored, highly scented English Rose ‘Pat Austin’ in her honor.

David Austin’s roses will long outlive him. What a legacy to leave the gardening world!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

1 comment on “Death of the Creator of English Roses

  1. Thank you for the lovely tribute to David Austin. I’ve grown two of his varieties (only one remains), but the deer now prevent me from adding more.

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