Pure Genius

Hybrids with petals, not pedals

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Fragrant, award-winning David Austin Roses are hybrids that have the best characteristics of old and new.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day: A lesson in rose-breeding!

David Austin started breeding roses in England more than 40 years ago in an attempt to create flowers that had the best qualities of both old fashioned and modern roses. Today, David Austin Roses has more than 800 different roses in its mail order collection and more than 200 rose varieties available for American customers. Austin’s award-winning roses have names like Lady Emma Hamilton, Gertrude Jekyll and Princess Alexandra of Kent, with fragrances described as fruity and fresh, with hints of raspberries and tea.

Austin’s son and managing director of the company, David JC Austin, pictured above,  called me from England this week as he prepared for Valentine’s Day.

I didn’t know until I started reading about David Austin Roses that there were brands of flowers.

My dad turns 84 next week, and he would die if you talked in terms of a brand. But the truth is that it is a brand. He created a style of rose that’s totally distinctive and unique, which is what you want when you create a brand. It’s his love. He didn’t do it to create a brand, but that’s what he’s done. Everything we do goes back to creating beautiful roses.

What are the qualities that make a rose desirable?

For the last 100 years, hybrid tea has been the dominant rose. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, sales of hybrid teas were stratospheric, but it’s gone down since then. The hybrid tea has a pointed bud, and when it flowers, it stays exactly as it is—which is much easier from a commercial point of view. But the consumer wants something different.

So how did your father breed a different flower?

Breeding is the same no matter what you’re breeding. If you’re breeding horses, you’re looking for certain characteristics. You don’t know if it’s going to work, but you have a strategy. So my father started breeding a hybrid tea (which blooms throughout the season but has a static look and little if any fragrance) with an old fashioned rose (that only flowers once in the season but has hundreds of petals and lots of fragrance). By crossing modern with old fashioned, we got something that people absolutely love. Our roses are becoming the rose to have at a wedding. It’s that “brand.” They are something special and a little more expensive.

How old are these old fashioned roses?

The rose goes back to biblical times. There are references in books to fragrance and certain varieties that we can date back to the 1500s that are still grown today.

So are consumers today looking for fragrant roses?

It’s difficult to sell fragrance in a catalog, but when the consumer gets the rose, it has the “wow” factor. Fragrance is the big thing now. We are a massive success in the garden rose industry, and the thing we do have is lots of fragrance. It’s tipped over to the cut rose market. But from a technical point of view there’s a tradeoff; If it’s very fragrant the vase life is shorter. In the vase it lasts for about a week; the non-fragrant variety lasts about three weeks. So the industry has it in its mind that you can’t get a long-lasting fragrant rose, and we’re wondering if that’s true. We’re working on it. The importance is to deliver to the consumer quickly.

Will your cut roses look the same as your garden roses?

Yes, they will have a look that’s not static. They open to reveal the beauty. If you’re in the garden, flowers develop and open over time, so cut flowers should do the same. If they just open and don’t move, why bother? You can get a plastic flower.

What’s your first memory of helping out in the family rose business?

One of my earliest memories was when I was 11 years old. [My father] had a field of garden roses totally overgrown with weeds . I came with some school friends, and we spent three to four weeks pulling weeds out between roses and got sunburns and thorns up our arms.

Are your biggest sales around Valentine’s Day?

Mother’s day is bigger here. The problem for us is that more women [than men] buy flowers, and given that this is a relatively new flower, men don’t know much about it. We need to educate men so they can buy the right flowers for their wives and girlfriends.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure