Cut roses with a whiff of splendor

David Austin emphasizes the fragrance in flowers.

Posted: February 12, 2010

Don't call me a snob, but I don't want a dozen long-stemmed red roses for Valentine's Day. Flowers thrill me, but not the ubiquitous red roses.

How did the American public get fixated on the red rose as the ultimate symbol of St. Valentine's Day, anyway? To me, the distinctive rose fragrance is as important as the visual display, but most cut roses today have had the fragrance bred out of them in favor of uniformity in shape and extended vase life.

Balking at uniformity is what brought Englishman David Austin's eventual fame among gardeners around the world. A Shropshire farmer's son born in 1926, he set out to create rose hybrids that restored fragrance and heirloom cabbage-rose form but retained modern roses' reblooming trait and wider color range.

In 1970, Austin started a small nursery to introduce the new breed he named English Roses. But it wasn't until he introduced Graham Thomas and Mary Rose in 1983 that the clamor for David Austin Roses began.

Austin's roses are sold today in retail nurseries throughout the United States and by mail order from the British company's U.S. distribution center in Tyler, Texas, established in 1999 because of plant quarantine restrictions. In addition, Chamblee's Rose Nursery in Tyler raises own-root Austin roses for sale to retailers and the public, as opposed to the grafted specimens marketed by the English company.

Austin's newest venture is selling cut flowers from hybrids developed over 15 years of intensive breeding. The roses bred for the cut-flower business share characteristics for which David Austin's garden roses are renowned: a profusion of petals that, in some hybrids, flatten into a broad head to reveal their hearts and in others retain a chalice-like shape. The fragrances range from almost indiscernible to hints of myrrh, fruitiness, lilac or old-rose muskiness.

"We cherish a little bit of individuality rather than plastic, Xeroxed" look-alikes, says Shropshire-based Susan Rushton, head of marketing for David Austin Roses. "We're the kind of company that worries about each petal. We do look at the finer details."

Customers can order a single variety or a mixed bouquet of colors. These include peachy Juliet, buttermilk Patience, pink Phoebe and more. The roses are battened down in their long, sturdy box and kept cool by blue-ice packs. A glass vase is included, in case the recipient lacks her own containers.

The flowers, sustainably grown in Salinas, Calif., arrive as open buds. Unlike most long-stemmed roses I have purchased, the English roses are fully open within a day. In my experience, tightly budded roses sometimes never open to share their voluptuous beauty. That's when the room fills with that transporting, cut-from-the-garden scent that makes a rose a rose.

Rushton says Austin breeders have discovered that "the stronger the fragrance, the shorter the vase life." Darcey, a deep maroon red, has the longest vase life, "but it is almost unscented. It's much more difficult to breed for both characteristics.

"It's a most complicated thing, isn't it, the fragrance in flowers?" Rushton says. "People have completely different perceptions of scent." She deems Rosalind, Phoebe and Patience the cut roses with the strongest fragrances. Cymbeline has "a very, very powerful scent of myrrh, but some people cannot smell myrrh at all."

If you recut the stems and replenish the water when it clouds, Austin's roses are guaranteed to stay fresh at least five days. That's the difference between roses snipped from bushes in the backyard and these hybrids. My garden-grown heirloom roses shatter when I put them in a vase, often within minutes.

For more information, call 1-800-328-8893 or go to

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