English Roses before David Austin – surely this is an oxymoron? By now most rose fanciers are aware that David Austin, of Wolverhampton, England, coined the term “English Rose” to describe the products of his breeding program, begun in the 1960s with ‘Constance Spry’. With their combination of Old Garden Rose flower form, modern color range, and rebloom, this breeder’s many English Rose introductions have gained enormous popularity over the past decades. So much so that Mr. Austin’s name is inseparably linked with this particular style of rose. However, it will not discredit Mr. Austin to point out that he is not the first 20th century rose breeder to introduce remontant cultivars with Old Garden Rose style blossoms. He is, rather, the first to do so with any great success. Indeed, a small but significant stable of “revival” roses have appeared over the course of this century. Quite a few of them would be indistinguishable if set beside the current crop of English Roses. Unlike the Austin Nursery’s introductions, though, these roses failed to generate great public enthusiasm or recognition as a group at the time of their introduction. Whether this was because of fashion, the growing appreciation for Old Garden Roses not having taken root until relatively recently, or because none of these roses was part of a sustained breeding and marketing program, is impossible to say. But as our taste in flower form grows once again to include the rosette, the globe, and the cup-shaped bloom, we may find it worth our while to revisit some of these English Rose precursors.
There are, of course, many remontant Old Garden Roses still in circulation. One need only consider the damask perpetuals, bourbons, or noisette roses. Our concern here though, is with roses that resemble these older classes in flower and shrubby growth habit, but like the English Roses, appeared far after the Old Garden Roses fell from fashion. Perhaps the earliest modern rose in what I shall refer to as the English style is ‘Grüss an Aachen’. Technically speaking, this rose, introduced by Geduldig in 1909, is a hybrid tea. (Its seed parent was the famous white hybrid perpetual ‘Frau Karl Druschki’, and its pollen parent the forgotten hybrid tea ‘Franz Deegen)’. But ‘Grüss an Aachen’ has never fit comfortably into the traditional hybrid tea mold. Its many-petaled, blush-white blooms open as loosely quartered cups, rather than high-centered spires, and are generally held in rather short-stemmed clusters – throwbacks to a floral style which had prevailed half a century earlier. The plants are much-branched and low in stature, rarely exceeding two-and-a-half feet, and resemble nothing so much as a rather shrubby floribunda. And though ‘Grüss an Achen’ predates the floribunda class by several decades, it is often classified as such in modern references. But should the English Roses become permanently established as an independent class, this foundling might settle in a more congenial home. David Austin himself has written that ‘Grüss an Aachen’ is “close to the English Rose ideal”1 and lists it among the English Roses in several of his publications.
Still offered in the U.S. by some of the larger rose specialty nurseries, ‘Grüss an Aachen’ has always maintained a certain limited popularity among enthusiasts. This may be due in part to its superb health and vigor, compact growth, and excellent capacity for rebloom. And while it has been reluctant to produce seed or fertile pollen, ‘Grüss an Aachen’ has produced several sports which differ from their parent either in flower color or growth habit. Neither “rosa” (or pink) ‘Grüss an Aachen’ nor ‘Climbing Grüss an Aachen’ are widely available in North America, but both probably merit further distribution.
Here are several older floribunda roses whose rosette-shaped blossoms ally them with the English Roses. ‘Rosemary Rose’, from de Ruiter in 1954, and ‘Plentiful’, bred by LeGrice in 1961, are two deep pink examples cited by Austin in his survey of modern roses. Perhaps more striking, and certainly more neglected in our country, is the beautiful little ‘Moonsprite’, which was bred by the late and talented Herbert Swim and introduced by Armstrong Nurseries in 1956. ‘Moonsprite’ forms a short (two feet) shrub, and bears clusters of pale lemon yellow flowers with neat button eyes at their centers. As they age, the blooms pale to cream and white around their edges – not unlike the popular English Rose ‘The Pilgrim’. Unusually for a floribunda of its vintage, ‘Moonsprite’ is also highly fragrant. That it should have been passed over so completely in the 1950s is not surprising, however. Not only were its noisette-style flowers decades ahead of their time, but they bore the additional curse of pale coloration in a day when strong gold and amber were the sought-after hues in yellow roses. While ‘Moonsprite’ has acquired a reputation for tenderness, initial reports in “Proof of the Pudding” were of excellent performance as far north as Lansing, Michigan.2 This rose is now quiocompact as ‘Moonsprite’ during our warm U.S. summers.
Another prominent U.S. breeder to dabble in roses of the English style was Eugene Boerner, who directed the breeding program at Jackson & Perkins during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Boerner showed a propensity for the inventive use of Old Garden Roses in hybridizing as early as the 1940s, when he used ‘Maréchal Niel’ to breed the successful hybrid tea ‘Diamond Jubilee’. Among his later introductions were the shrubby, short climbers ‘Aloha’ and ‘Parade’, both of which bear sumptuous cupped flowers in strong pink, and the floribunda ‘Geranium Red’. (The latter should not be confused with the Rosa moyesii selection ‘Geranium’.) Of these, the most nearly allied to the English Roses is ‘Aloha’, which is a close ancestor to many of David Austin’s popular varieties, including ‘Abraham Darby’, ‘Golden Celebration’, and ‘The Prince’. Like several of its recent progeny, ‘Aloha’ has trouble deciding whether to be a climber or a sprawling shrub.
However, its plentiful, highly fragrant blooms are easily mistaken for those of a bourbon ‘Rosand’ make it the equal of any of the taller pink English Roses. Both this rose and ‘Parade’ owe much of their vigor and attractive growth to their parent ‘New Dawn’, whose Rosa wichurana heritage also appears in their beautiful glossy foliage and outstanding disease resistance.
While ‘Aloha’ and ‘Parade’ are still often to be seen in American gardens, ‘Geranium Red’ has fallen almost completely out of commerce. This rose was introduced with some hoopla by Jackson & Perkins in 1947, and was recognized immediately as a rose very much unto itself. The color is a strong scarlet, and the scented flowers are quartered and fully double. Much “too double”, it turns out, for “Proof of the Pudding” correspondents of the time.3 ‘Geranium Red’ nevertheless garnered a respectable 7.2 rating from the ARS before fading into oblivion during the 1950s. Its disappearance is truly a shame, for though its strong color may not appeal to every gardener, it remains unmatched among the current crop of English Roses.
Prior to David Austin, the most prolific source of modern shrub roses with Old Garden Rose blooms was probably the ever-inventive Kordes establishment. The oddly-colored rose ‘Magenta’ appeared in the Kordes stable in 1954, and was first classified as a floribunda. Its quartered-rosette-shaped flowers set it apart almost as effectively as its peculiar lavender-cerise coloits growth is awkwardly tall and lax for a traditional floribunda. As a result, ‘Magenta’ has hovered about the fringes of our gardens as a curiosity almost since its introduction. Like ‘Geranium Red’, however, it represents the English Rose style in an otherwise unavailable color, and should be made more widely available in North America for that reason alone. Another Kordes introduction which offers English-style blooms in a distinctive color is ‘Lavender Lassie’ from 1960, which is often construed as a hybrid musk rose, but whose blooms are really rather large and formal for that class. Fragrant, vigorous, and blooming in a more gentle lilac color, ‘Lavender Lassie’ has remained much more popular than ‘Magenta’. For those who require a lilac-tinted rose of taller stature than David Austin’s ‘Lilac Rose’ or ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh’, ‘Lavender Lassie’ can be highly recommended as a vigorous and adaptable garden subject. It is particularly well-suited for use as a pillar rose or as a low climber for walls and fences, though in warm climates it will, like many English Roses, grow to considerable heights. A more recent Kordes introduction, ‘Rosarium Uetersen’, of 1977, is truly a climber in habit, blooms are comparable in their deep, cool pink color to ‘Parade’, but they are in fact both fuller and flatter. It is easy to imagine that this rose’s progress in the U.S. may be hindered by its “difficult” name. (It is unfortunate that so petty a concern should affect the success of a truly beautiful rose, but how often has it been written that ‘Frau Karl Druschki’s’ progress abroad would have been swifter had it been named “Snow Queen”). Outstanding disease resistance.
As roses in the English style grow in popularity, it would be no surprise to find ‘Rosarium Uetersen’ re-enter the American market under a different name. As it stands it is a rose worth seeking out, despite its limited current distribution. In the end, neither Boerner, the Kordes family, nor Herbert Swim pursued the English style of rose with any consistency, and none promoted it with the kind of zeal we see among the nurseries today. Yet from time to time individual varieties did arise to foreshadow today’s successful English Roses. An article of this length can hardly claim to be complete in ferreting out these worthy precursors. Indeed, such ever-popular cultivars as the hybrid musk ‘Buff Beauty’, with its noisette-like blooms, deserve a place on this list as much as any. Others, such as Kordes’ ‘Alchemyst’ or ‘Aschermittwoch’ have been omitted because they do not rebloom. But at the very least it will serve to remind English Rose fanciers of a few older hybrids that may hold special appeal. Some may offer combinations of growth habit and color the more recent varieties do not provide. Others may be adapted to a particular garden niche that the English Roses can not fill. Certainly none of them deserve to be ignored or forgotten simply because they had the misfortune to be born before their time.
1. David Austin, 1992. Old Roses and English Roses (Woodbridge, UK: The Antique Collectors’ Club), p. 162.
2. American Rose Annual, 1960, p. 217.
3. American Rose Annual, 1950, p. 220.