Michael Marriott, technical director and senior rosarian for David Austin Roses, notes that “Rose breeding is, at heart, a romantic quest to achieve a vision of beauty.” The quest is one requiring vision and patience, as breeders trial candidate seedlings over a period of eight to ten years, yet introduce just two to four new English Rose varieties per annum. Unveiled for 2017 are Desdemona and The Ancient Mariner, both bred in a 20-year program.
With the parents under glass, cross-pollination commences in April at David Austin Roses in England, and continues through the end of June to early July; hips are harvested in fall. The process results in about 150,000 seedlings every year—the result of carefully monitored crossings. As with children, roses’ attributes stem from the genetics of their parentage, but dominant traits are necessarily left to nature and surface unpredictably. Michael explains that a rose’s fragrance may be the result of a mixture of up to three hundred various oils, but that two or three of these combine to create the dominant scent.
“In David Austin’s English Roses,” he explains, “the mix will include, variously, Old Rose, Tea, Musk, Myrrh or Fruit. Other oils add important subtle nuances that give different roses distinctive, evocative notes of cucumber, lemon, blackberry, honey, cedar wood, and more.”
Beyond simply meeting the strict criteria for the program, new introductions must have that extra something special. While the focus is on producing roses with exceptional fragrance, romantic color, healthy foliage, disease resistance, excellent health, and repeat-blooming attributes, flowers must also be significantly beautiful and have an English rose charm, along with something Michael refers to as “the magic.”
That magic is more easily seen than described, and is more than the mere sum of a rose’s parts. Beyond traits like loveliness and healthy bloom yield per season, “it is the way all of the above work together,” Michael says. “We want all of these positive characteristics, but see magic only when everything adds up to something that’s absolutely breathtaking.” When asked about his own favorite David Austin roses, Michael mentions several, including Munstead Wood, Lady of Shalott, Gertrude Jekyll, Princess Alexandra of Kent, and The Generous Gardener, but is reluctant to choose from among the many varieties he has worked with over the past three decades.
“My list can vary by the day,” he says. “A fresh memory of scent and off I’ll go in another direction.” For fragrance, though, he favors the classic Old Rose scent of Gertrude Jekyll, and the Buttercup, he says, “for its elusive, truly delicious and rather exotic perfume.” David C. H. Austin himself, Michael relates, always says he hasn’t a favorite, but when pressed, might include Olivia Rose Austin and Princess Alexandra of Kent.
Text Cynthia Reeser Constantino
To learn more about David Austin Roses, read “David Austin Roses: A Romance with the Garden” on page 69 of the March/April 2017 issue of Victoria. Also, see David Austin Roses’s list of most fragrant varieties.