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Divine David Austin Roses

by Nanette Londeree, Master Rosarian, Marin Rose Society

Article first appeared in the Marin Rose in 2006

'Gertrude Jekyll', photo by Rita Perwich


“Fragrance is the other half of the beauty of a rose” - David Austin

David C. H. Austin was born in 1926 on a farm in Shropshire, England. He came from a long line of farmers, though none of them breeders of roses. He was interested in gardening from an early age and first turned to plant breeding through a friend of his fathers who was introducing new varieties of hardy plants, including Russell's lupins, phloxes, and delphiniums. In the 1940s, a copy of George Bunyard's book on old roses gave him the idea of crossing the old roses with modern varieties. At that time, old garden roses - the gallicas, damasks, and albas, had all but died out.


During WWII, most of the land on the family farm was requisitioned to be used as an air base. When the war ended, there wasn’t enough workable land to make farming economically feasible, and young David’s thoughts turned to horticulture. He worked for a time at Sunningdale Nursery where he met England’s famous rosarian and author Graham Stuart Thomas, who would become a lifelong friend of Austin’s. Thomas encouraged him to pursue his vision of creating new roses in the style of old roses, combining the unique charm and fragrance of old roses with the wide color range and repeat-flowering qualities of modern roses.

Austin’s interest in breeding roses became a consuming interest and through the 1950’s he made many crosses introducing his first variety, ‘Constance Spry’ in 1963. This sumptuous rose-pink rose was the offspring of ‘Dainty Maid’, a modern floribunda and the gallica rose ‘Belle Isis’. It met the mark for color, flower form, fragrance, and overall vigor, but the plant’s form was sprawling, and it only flowered once a year. Next was ‘Chianti’ in 1967, a cross between the floribunda ‘Dusky Maiden’ and the deep crimson ‘Tuscany’, followed by ‘Shropshire Lass’ in 1968. Again, while lovely roses, they only flowered once a year, so he sharpened his focus on development of repeat-flowering varieties with the old rose style blooms.

The first repeat bloomers, ‘Wife of Bath’ and ‘Canterbury’ were introduced in 1969. Austin called these 'English Roses', as the name seemed to symbolize the peony-style of rose in the border of a traditional English cottage garden where roses mingle with scented perennials and annuals, creating a romantic, fragrant garden. That same year, he founded David Austin Roses, his own mail order business specializing in heritage and historic roses, as well as his English Roses. It wasn’t until 1983 with the introduction of ‘Graham Thomas’ and ‘Mary Rose’ at the Chelsea Flower Show, that he grabbed the public’s attention. ‘Graham Thomas’ is probably the most well know of Austin’s roses, with its gorgeous deep lemon-yellow blossom and delicious tea-rose fragrance, blooming prolifically on a relatively disease-free plant. ‘Mary Rose’ produces plump ruby-colored buds that open to iridescent pink blooms, reminiscent of French damask roses.

Eldest son David J. C. Austin joined him in the business, and they introduced many new roses named after family members, well-known rosarians, geographical landmarks in Britain, historical events, and British writers, particularly Shakespeare and Chaucer, and their works or characters.


His breeding program recognized the importance of going back to old roses for crosses every few generations. He developed a series of breeding “strains” or groups, originating from particular types of roses, or exhibiting specific attributes:

  • Aloha Strain - crossed with the modern climbing roses giving strong open form and fragrant heavy flowers such as ‘Abraham Darby’

  • Gloire de Dijon Strain - Noisette roses crossed with the modern hybrid teas producing roses with late modern rose leaves and large fragrant roses like ‘Sweet Juliet’

  • Heritage Strain - crossed with floribundas to produce a good bushy plant with shiny leaves and fragrant flowers, ‘Graham Thomas’ is a good example

  • Mary Rose Strain - bushy growth with repeat blooming, such as ‘Mary Rose’

  • Old Strain - a catch-all for the roses that do not fit into the other group and include the very old crosses like ‘Constance Spry’

  • Portland Strain - long drooping damasks like leaves and old rose fragrance like ‘Gertrude Jekyll’

  • The Squire Strain - usually large dark colored flowers with an old rose fragrance on a bush with strong stems and many thorns such as ‘L.D. Braithwaite’

  • Wife of Bath Strain - short bushy plants and flowers with a myrrh fragrance like ‘Wife of Bath’

Today, David Austin Roses remains a family business, growing over 1.2 million roses per year with only the very best four to six new garden rose varieties being introduced each year. Their aim is to produce better roses in every way, with disease resistance being a priority. Now 80 years old and still living on the family farm, Austin remains active at the nursery dividing his time between his breeding program and writing.

Austin's roses are not officially recognized as a separate class of roses and are categorized by the American Rose Society as shrubs. The majority are healthy, floriferous, and fragrant. Flower forms range from singles (with five to seven petals), to semi-double and very double blooms. Here are some stunning examples of David Austin’s English roses that you may want to add to your garden:


‘Belle Story’, light pink blooms with a hint of yellow at the base; bright red-gold stamens with a strong spicy scent.

‘Dapple Dawn’, light pink rose with single form on a medium sized shrub. Flowers change color as they open, very prominent golden stamens.


‘Gertrude Jekyll’, large plump buds open to medium pink, flat, fully quartered blooms with a strong fragrance; a very tall plant.


‘Mary Magdalene’, a newer introduction of very fragrant, soft pink buds opening to a creamy-white blossoms flecked with red.


‘Pegasus’, flowers are a unique blend of subtle creamy-peach towards the outside of the bloom and a deeper shade of apricot towards the center with a tea rose fragrance.

‘Sharifa Asma’, a low growing variety that produces luminous light pink, very full blooms with a strong perfume.


‘The Squire’, fat dark red buds open to deeply cupped large blooms of velvet crimson; a heady, old rose fragrance.


‘Wise Portia’, a mauve blend with a strong, spicy perfume.


Photos by author above:

‘Belle’s Story’

‘Dapple Dawn’

‘Gertrude Jekyll’

‘Graham Thomas’

‘Mary Magdalene’

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