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.
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.
As for taming those megacanes, Mr. Marriott has concluded that a strict summer pruning program results in quicker repeat flowering and a shapelier bush. "Roses like Graham Thomas want to conquer the world with enthusiastic growth the first few years after planting," Marriott says. "Prune them back to within six inches of where the cane originated, and they should settle down and exhibit more manageable growth in two to three years."
Peter Schneider, coeditor of the Combined Rose List, a directory of rose sources, notes that many English Roses – including frilly pink James Galway and yellow Charlotte – have shown impressive winter hardiness in his Ohio garden – often better than some Canadian rose varieties. At least 15 varieties of English Roses are hardy to USDA Zone 4.
Down in steamy Sarasota, Fla., Connie Vierbicky, known to friends as the "rose queen," lovingly tends a garden that features more than 30 Austin roses. She became infatuated with English Roses almost 20 years ago. "Although some of the roses don't flourish in the extreme Florida heat," she says, "most are blooming machines. And I think they are more disease resistant [than other roses] because their genetic relationship to old garden roses."
Sophy's Rose, Molineux, Pat Austin, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles are some selections that perform well throughout the South, including the Gardens of the American Rose Center in Shreveport, La. But Ms. Vierbicky cautions Southern gardeners to avoid an excess of nitrogen fertilizer: "Too much and the roses tend to develop weird, green vegetative centers."
Everyone who grows English Roses has a favorite, some of which are no longer in the good graces of the great hybridizer himself. Each year the Austin staff looks at the roses with a critical eye and decides which plants are no longer considered up to snuff. In the catalog, those that make the grade have a small flower next to the name.
I was relieved to find one of my favorites, light pink Heritage, still gets the official seal of approval. I planted it in 1993 during the first flush of English Rose fever. And I jolly well plan to keep it.