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Oh-so-romantic English Roses

David Austin roses combine the best characteristics of modern and old-fashioned roses.

By Lynn HuntContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2009

CHARMING: Othello is one of the earlier English Roses, hybridized in 1986. It has an old-fashioned rose fragrance.

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When I'm giving a lecture on roses, I often begin by joking with the audience that my presentation could be hazardous to their health. You see, I know better than most that once "rose fever" sets in, there is no cure. No matter how many roses one has, there will always be a more appealing one coming up in the next garden catalog. That means rose fever can also be hazardous to the pocketbook.

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I contracted a rare strain called English Rose fever while living in London in the early 1990s. It was there that I discovered a majority of British rose gardens looked nothing like the ones I'd planted with lonely rows of prissy hybrid tea rosebushes. Instead, roses were part of the overall landscape and many had charming, Victorian-looking, fragrant blooms that took me back to summers on my grandmother's farm.

I assumed these roses were antiques; however, they were actually a new class of "old fashioned" roses created by David Austin. As a result of a hybridizing program initiated in the 1950s, he captured the appealing features of roses introduced prior to 1867 – such as cupped or rosette-shaped flowers and strong fragrance – in bushes that have the repeat bloom and vigor of modern roses.

That appeal was not lost on admiring Americans, who stood in line to buy roses with names like William Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Wise Portia. Almost 20 years later, many of the initial Austin introductions have fallen out of favor. But interest in newer, more disease-resistant varieties remains strong all across the country.

Of course, each variety behaves differently depending on where it grows, and since Mr. Austin bred his roses with Britain's climate in mind, there were bound to be surprises when his roses came across the pond. Some, like Gertrude Jekyll, grew canes so long that it was dubbed "Galloping Gerty." Falstaff was a healthy bush but barely flowered in the Southern heat, and some varieties couldn't take extreme cold. So, to get a better idea of how English Roses perform in various climates, test facilities have been set up in nine areas of the United States from Long Island, N.Y.; to Tulsa, Okla.; to San Diego.

Michael Marriott of David Austin Roses has just visited all the gardens to get the latest feedback on growth habits and disease resistance. "We're making great improvements in disease resistance across the country without compromising the beauty and fragrance of the roses," he reports. "We encourage our test gardens to spray only on occasion or not at all to better evaluate how our breeding program is progressing." He also notes that varieties including the dark-red Darcey Bussell and pink Scepter'd Isle not only maintain healthy foliage but also display resistance to damaging insects like rose midge.

A reference for English Roses

Anyone who's bewitched by David Austin's English Roses needs a copyof his updated book, "The English Roses, Classic Favorites & NewSelections" (Firefly Books, $35, 303 pp.).

In it herelates how this popular group of roses was developed and discussestheir varying characteristics – form, size, colors, growth, foliage,and fragrance. He also includes excellent ideas for using English Rosesin the landscape as well as in arrangements of cut flowers.

Bestof all, the majority of the book is devoted to the flowers themselves –full-page photos of individual roses with helpful descriptions. Thischarming and useful book is the perfect companion to Austin's lovelyroses.

– Judy Lowe

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