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The Evolution of the Garden Rose

The Evolution of the Garden Rose

By Nita Robertson, AIFD, CFD

With their incredible beauty and undeniable fragrance, garden roses are in a class of their own. The amazing cup shape, complex colors, petal count and formation, and fragrance set them apart from other roses and make them so desirable. And floral designers and consumers alike love how they open so big and beautifully. In addition, garden roses typically display blended hues that often change as the blooms open. In flower designs such as bridal bouquets and centerpieces, it is important to let garden roses open fully, to show off their full magnificence. 

Design & Styling @joyproctor Florals @bowsandarrowsflowers Photography @jessicamangiaphotography

Garden cultivation of roses began some 5,000 years ago, most likely in China and Egypt. During the period of the Roman Empire (27 B.C. to A.D. 476), roses were grown extensively in the Middle East. Roses have been a special part of history and admired by generations.

Between 1804 and 1814, the French Empress Joséphine, wife of Napoleon I, built a rose collection at Malmaison, then a château in the country just west of Paris. One of the gardens she created at Malmaison comprised the largest collection of roses in Europe at the time, with some 250 species and varieties. Joséphine brought in rose plants from around the world, and her garden encouraged French rose hybridizers to develop new varieties. She guaranteed the fame of her gardens through her patronage of the Belgian painter and botanist Pierre-Joseph Redouté, who carefully documented the roses, lilies and other flowers in the gardens at Malmaison, in watercolor paintings. Redouté’s masterwork, Les Roses, is a three-volume series of 170 hand-colored plates dedicated to Joséphine’s collection of roses. Les Roses was released around 1817, and the botanical illustrations contained within are the most reproduced such illustrations of all time—and they are still highly sought after today. 

A landmark achievement in rose breeding occurred in the mid-19th century when tea roses were crossed with hybrid perpetuals to give us modern hybrid tea roses. The era of Modern Roses was established with the introduction of the first hybrid tea rose, ‘La France’, a pink cultivar created by the French breeder Jean-Baptiste André Guillot in 1867. The American Rose Society lists more than 40 types of roses in its classification system. Generally, they are grouped into Old World Roses, bred before 1867, and Modern Roses, bred after 1867.

David Austin English Roses

David Austin Sr. on Bench with Bertie

An important segment of the garden rose story is that of David C.H. Austin (1926-2018), who, arguably, played the most fundamental role in transforming the world of roses. In the 1940s, when Austin was a teenager, he started breeding shrub roses as a hobby to combine the beauty and fragrance of Old Garden Roses with the repeat-flowering ability and wide color range of Modern Roses, such as hybrid teas and floribundas. In the early 1950s, this mission became his life’s work, and the cultivars he developed, along with his eldest son David J.C. Austin, are known as English Roses.

David Austin Roses was founded 52 years ago, in 1970. Austin’s original focus was breeding shrub roses for the garden, but in the early 1990s, he developed a breeding program for cut English Roses. The first floristry roses were introduced commercially in 2004 and included the headline varieties of ‘Juliet’ (Ausjameson) and ‘Patience’ (Auspastor), which have now been joined by new heroines including ‘Leonora’ (Auswagsy) and ‘Eugenie’ (Ausimage) as part of today’s 16-strong collection called David Austin Wedding & Event Roses.

What makes a cut David Austin English Rose different from all other roses? One characteristic is that a David Austin cut rose grows in the vase from tight bud to charismatic bloom, showcasing her numerous petals. This evolution mimics the same transformation that happens in the garden. This was quite a new phenomenon in the cut rose industry at the time, which had previously been dominated by hybrid tea roses. 

Design & Styling @joyproctor Florals @bowsandarrowsflowers Photography @jessicamangiaphotography

David C.H. Austin’s goal of reintroducing fragrance into cut garden rose cultivars was not an easy task because, at the time, fragrance had a direct inverse correlation to vase life: The more fragrance, the shorter the vase life. That’s why many hybrid tea rose varieties developed as commercial cut flowers in the latter decades of the 20th century had little or no fragrance; the breeders traded fragrance for vase life. The work by the David Austin Roses team over the last 30 years has resulted in spectacular English garden roses that combine both perfume and long vase life. 

Breeding is just one part of the David Austin Roses story. Today, David Austin Wedding & Event Roses works with some of the finest rose growers in the world, each of whom have their own stories, as well as the expertise to grow premium garden roses as cut flowers. Alexandra Farms, in Colombia; Rosaprima and Agrirose, in Ecuador; and Green Valley Floral, in California, are the proud growers of David Austin English Roses as cut flowers, supplying wholesale and retail florists in the U.S. 12 months of the year.

Design & Styling @joyproctor Florals @bowsandarrowsflowers Photography @jessicamangiaphotography

Joey Azout, president of Alexandra Farms, explains, “David Austin began breeding garden roses for the cut flower market that combined the flowers’ most famous characteristics—the old-fashioned cup shape and irresistible fragrance—with longevity and vase life. This sparked a trend that’s been strong ever since, with breeders in other countries developing and launching new and unique garden rose varieties every year. We grow more than 60 varieties of garden roses at our farm in Colombia, offering florists and designers around the world a wide range of colors, shapes and fragrances.”

The final element is, of course, you, the floral designers, who bring the roses to life, maximizing their beauty by creating world-class floral designs for the end consumers—your clients. Knowing the story always helps us to revere these flowers and appreciate their beauty even more. 

Leaving the final word to Mr. Austin: “There is no such thing as a perfect rose, so our work will never end, but we will never stop looking for it.” 

David Austin
Design & Styling @joyproctor Florals @bowsandarrowsflowers Photography @jessicamangiaphotography
Design & Styling @joyproctor Florals @bowsandarrowsflowers Photography @jessicamangiaphotography

FREE POSTERS AND MORE

To request a free David Austin Roses poster, email the David Austin team, with your name and complete mailing address, at cutroses@davidaustin.co.uk.

To request a free printed poster or to download a digital poster of Alexandra Farms’ garden rose varieties, or to download the company’s new Garden Rose Guide, visit alexandrafarms.com/wedding-guide.

For care and handling information visit www.davidaustin.com/florists/

Fun Rose Facts, Legend and Lore

• Due to fossil evidence, roses are known to have flourished 35 million years ago.

• The Chinese and the Egyptians are thought to be the first to cultivate roses. This started around 5,000 years ago, when monks would grow roses for medicinal purposes.

• The world’s oldest living rose bush is thought to be 1,000 years old. Today, it continues to bloom on the wall of the Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany.

• The era of Modern Roses was established with the introduction of the first hybrid tea rose, ‘La France’, by the French breeder Jean-Baptiste André Guillot in 1867.

• Nero, the fifth Roman emperor (A.D. 37-68), regularly dumped tons of rose petals on his dinner guests to show his love and gratitude for them. Similarly, the young Roman emperor Elagabalus (A.D. 203-222), once buried banquet guests in “violets and other flowers” released from the ceiling. Unintended consequence: Some guests were smothered to death, it was reported. The event is depicted in an 1888 painting, The Roses of Heliogabalus, by the Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, which shows drifts of pink rose petals (not violets and other flowers) falling from the ceiling.

• In Greek and Roman mythology, Chloris (Roman: Flora), the goddess of flowers and springtime, was out walking early one morning when she stumbled upon the lifeless body of a woodland nymph. Saddened by the creature’s fate, Chloris decided to breathe life into the nymph, transforming its body into a flower. Aphrodite (Roman: Venus), the goddess of love and beauty, named the flower “rose” and dedicated it to her son, Eros, the god of love.

• According to another ancient myth, bushes of white roses sprang forth during the birth of Aphrodite (the gruesome backstory involves hatred, jealousy, revenge and castration, which we won’t go into here!). As to how the roses turned red and Anemone flowers were created, Greek mythology has it that one day, Aphrodite received word that her mortal lover, Adonis, would be harmed while he was out hunting boar. As Aphrodite hurried to Adonis’ aid, she scratched herself on a rose bush, splashing speckles of blood on their white petals, turning the blossoms red. Unfortunately, Adonis died from a fatal wound, and Aphrodite’s tears fell into pools of Adonis’ blood, giving rise to the Anemone flower. 

• On Nov. 20, 1986, Congress and President Ronald Reagan designated the rose the National Floral Emblem of the United States.

Designer: Holly Chapple
Photo credit Theo Milo, David Austin Brand Shoot

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