David Austin, a plant breeder who defiantly reinvented the rose to the delight of gardeners, florists and brides around the world, died Tuesday at his home in Albrighton, in Shropshire, England. He was 92.
His family announced his death but did not disclose the cause.
In his 30s, Austin began a life’s work breeding new rose varieties that captured the romance, character and, most of all, the fragrance of old garden roses immortalized in art and literature through the ages and across the globe. Few shared his vision.
At the time, breeders, plant nurseries and consumers were drawn to stiff, tightly furled and resolutely unscented hybrid tea and floribunda roses that embodied the prevailing ideal of a rosebud on a stick. In a society that after World War II was gripped by modernity, Austin might as well have been peddling silk hats and spats.
“He had gone around to other rose nurseries [in England] and tried to get them to grow them for him,” said Michael Marriott, his longtime colleague and company rosarian. “They all rejected him out of hand.”
Today, Austin’s creations, which he called English Roses, are the gold standard in the vast contemporary rose market. Chalice-shaped, multi-petaled, richly hued and perfumed, they are widely celebrated for having restored the charm and character to the iconic flower.
From his home and nursery in Albrighton, Austin, his son David Austin Jr. and their colleagues developed a rose breeding center that keeps their annual catalog replete with more than 100 varieties of new-old roses. The United States is the second-largest market for them, after Britain, though English Roses are found in gardens around the world.
In the past two decades, his firm, David Austin Roses Ltd., has developed varieties for the cut flower market that have become the most popular wedding roses in the United States, said sales executive Rebecca Reed.
David Charles Henry Austin was born in Albrighton on Feb. 16, 1926, and grew up in a farming family. Cultivating crops was second nature to him — as a young man he farmed grains — but he became interested as a teenager in the work of a local nurseryman who was hybridizing lupines and other perennials. The idea that one could take two plants and, by hand pollination, create a whole new plant captivated him, Marriott said.
Austin’s love of old roses began on his 21st birthday, when his sister gave him a book on the subject. It opened his eyes to rose types developed in France and England through the centuries, first as medicinal and herbal plants and then as garden plants. Most bloomed but once a year.
The modern rose emerged in the 19th century and soon became popular for its repeat flowering, brighter color variations and small size — suited to a society moving to the city and suburbs. By the time Austin began his quixotic quest to revive the historic rose, millions of hybrid teas were produced annually for consumers in Europe and the United States.
Austin was unwavering in his desire to cross an old rose with a modern variety to produce a plant with all the grace of an antique rose and the pleasing attributes of the new version. Scent was an essential element, and he often said that a rose “is only half a rose if it doesn’t have fragrance,” Marriott said. A scented flower tends to fade faster than an unscented one, a reason modern roses lacked the trait.
Austin’s first introduction, in 1961, was not a repeat bloomer but paved the way for others. Named “Constance Spry” after a renowned English gardener and florist, it had large rose-pink blossoms that smelled of myrrh.
During the 1960s, working as a farmer and raising his family, Austin continued his hybridizing on the side and added about half a dozen other varieties to his range before deciding to turn his hobby into a business.
The early years were difficult, with little demand, Marriott said. On several occasions he was on the verge of quitting, but his wife, Patricia Braithwaite Austin, urged him to carry on.
At the time, the old-rose world was kept alive by a small cadre of English aristocrats who understood the cultural significance of such plants, not least in relation to the 15th century War of the Roses. They also had the space and staff to grow them. Trade may have been meager, but the customers to Austin’s humble nursery tended to arrive in style “in their Rollses and Bentleys,” Marriott said.
Austin’s breakthrough occurred in 1983, when he brought three introductions to his stand at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. The press raved in particular over a variety named for an eminent rosarian: “Graham Thomas” was a golden yellow with a strong tea rose scent.
Austin and his extravagant rose displays became a fixture at the Chelsea show, where on at least one occasion he greeted Queen Elizabeth II as she made her rounds. In 2007, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire, and he received the highest award of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Victoria Medal of Honour.
Austin cut the figure of the gentleman farmer — with tweed jackets, corduroys and, in earlier years, a pipe — and acquaintances remembered him as a fellow who preferred reading poetry in his 18th-century paneled library to going to dinner parties.
He was most at home in his greenhouses, studying the blooming and growth habits of seedlings and making the hard choices over what to keep, what to discard.
“At one stage we would have a quarter of a million seedlings every year that would produce three or four [commercial] varieties,” Marriott said.
Austin’s survivors include two sons, David J.C. Austin, who lives in the Shropshire village of Cleobury North, and James Austin, of York, England; a daughter, Claire Austin, of Sarn, Powys, Wales; two sisters; and eight grandchildren. His wife, Pat Austin, a painter and sculptor, died in 2007.
Naming his roses allowed Austin to tap into British arts and culture. Among his 240 introductions are roses named after the actress Judi Dench, flutist James Galway and ballet dancer Darcey Bussell. “Charles Darwin” is big and golden and lemon-scented. “Falstaff,” like Shakespeare’s character, is red-blooded and full of life. The tangerine-colored “Lady Emma Hamilton,” named for the lover of Admiral Nelson, is “useful for creating a little excitement in the border,” according to the catalog.
Two things irritated Austin. The first was the suggestion that his success was because of slick marketing instead of the character and beauty of his roses.
The second was if someone asked him to name his favorite creation.
“He would never deign to answer that question,” Marriott said.
Higgins writes for the Washington Post.