The godfather of English roses, David Austin, has turned a lifelong passion into a global enterprise. Ian Halstead visited him at his Shropshire homestead.
It’s 50 years since a farmer’s son transformed gardens throughout the Western world by melding the rare fragrances of Britain’s old roses with the glorious colours of a new generation of blooms.
David Austin has since become the brand for English roses, but it’s often forgotten that their debut, after three decades of painstaking research, was both hugely innovative – and controversial.
The vogue in 50s and 60s Britain was for tea roses; bred to catch a judge’s eye, not to tantalise a gardener’s nose, and as “natural” in terms of breeding as a pug-dog.
Inevitably, the appearance of Austin’s fragrant blooms caused ructions among the rose-growing establishment, whose products immediately began to fade from favour.
So it’s pleasing to discover that David’s inspired creations were beloved by one of the modern era’s great visionaries – the late Steve Jobs.
The legendary nous and energy of Apple’s co-founder turned a bunch of computer geeks into Pixar, whose work bedazzles film-goers worldwide, but when he wanted to impress visitors to their Californian studios, software-generated images simply wouldn’t do.
Jobs ordered hundreds of Constance Spry – David’s first English bloom – and the pink and perfumed climber still adorns a spectacular 100-metre walkway.
His love of roses intrigued many, even close family members.
As his sister Mona Simpson asked, during her impassioned funeral oration: “What other CEO knows the history of English and Chinese tea roses, and has a favourite David Austin rose?”
On first thought, Pixar seems to occupy a different universe to Britain’s best-loved rose-grower.
Pixar movies sure make great eye-candy, but are simply animated artifice, whilst the latter’s creations represent nature at its splendid and most magnificent best.
Look closer though, and there are parallels. Both offer hand-crafted products, which take years to reach maturity – and undergo countless design setbacks along the way – require immediate visual appeal, and must be sufficiently desirable to make customers consistently part with hard-earned cash.
Each must retain the essential characteristics of its predecessor, but whilst featuring something a little different, so the links between Toy Story and Brave are as distinct as the lineage between Constance Spry and Austin’s newest bloom.
Both companies have also dominated their market sectors for years without rivals worthy of the name, and are successful global enterprises.
Austin’s venture may sprawl across the hinterland of a small Shropshire village, but its products sell in almost 50 countries, and generated revenue of some £13 million last year, via direct sales, garden centres and licensees.
Equally, although its trophy cabinet contains sixteen gold medals from Chelsea, its international appeal was underlined when the crimson glories of “Munstead Wood” saw it receive high-profile awards in the US, Japan and France.
Austin’s operations also include a distribution base in Texas – offering garden roses and next-day delivery of bouquets in every state bar Alaska and Hawaii – and growing centres in California, Columbia, Ecuador, Japan and Kenya.
It took 15 years for David to develop just the right kind of hybrid blooms to withstand the demands of the cut-flower market.
The more fragrant the rose, the sooner it will shatter in a vase, so varieties created for the floristry market need long and strong stems, unlike the graceful and willowy form of their garden-based cousins.
“People think it’s all about dreams, but this is a business,” muses David, as he reflects on his company’s latest overseas expansion – into Japan.
Even into his 86th year, discussions about form, foliage or fragrance will hold him rapt, but – like Steve Jobs – his attention span shrinks swiftly if a discussion meanders. You might wonder if he has a favoured bloom among the 215 varieties he has brought to life.
“I like them all. After all, if I don’t like a rose, there is no incentive to add it to the collection. The roses closest to my heart are the varieties that are most easily overlooked by gardeners,” is the response.
Tenacious souls might seek enlightenment about Austin’s day-dreams, during his teenage years in the 1930s.
Did he perhaps wish to pilot a Spitfire, stand astride the footplate of a steam engine, or even escape the Great Depression by exploring exotic lands?
“No. I bred roses as a hobby, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, and I’ve been very lucky to enjoy a good life working with roses,” he says.
The same blend of single-minded enthusiasm and passion is a recurring theme throughout Austin’s 120-acre site.
A visit certainly opens the eye and the ear, not least because of the magnificent peacock which peeks noisily into the greenhouses, where the next generation of glorious scent-laden roses is being tenderly crafted.
The breeding season is well under way, but his spectacular plumage and courtship rituals have failed to catch a female’s eye, and you can’t help wonder if the frustrated bird is belatedly trying to pick up tips on presentation and style.
Not that Austin’s affable technical guru, Michael Marriott, bothers much, as he strides into the distance with a determined air, dispensing wisdom, anecdotes and facts a-plenty in his wake.
After all, when you’ve spent the long winter months devising an imposing garden for the King of Bhutan, and advising such clients as the National Trust, Kew Gardens and English Heritage, the plight of a lovelorn peacock does come rather low on your agenda.
However, Michael uses his 27 years with Austin’s to provide much enlightenment to those naïve in the ways of roses, and their long journey toward prickly perfection.
“David’s genius was to combine the best characteristics of the old roses, particularly the fragrances, with the wider range of colours and the ability to repeat-flower of the modern roses.
“Some people think a rose is just a rose, but they are incredibly varied. Some are just a few centimetres tall, but ramblers can run for tens of metres, and the number of petals varies from four to two hundred,” he says
“We now have roughly 800 varieties, but some of our oldest are still popular. There must be at least a million of Graham Thomas around the world, but they all came from a single seedling, grown here and propagated.
“Pollen is harvested by hand, then brushed on to parent plants which we believe have promise.
“The seeds are then kept at around minus 20 degrees, in the fridge, before planting. We have 250,000 seedlings at the moment, and every one is genetically unique.
“It usually takes between eight and nine years to create a new rose, and it’s a process in which you get really embroiled, and it’s also continuous, because different roses are at different stages of development.
“It takes thousands of seedlings to produce just a few roses, and at each stage, you just don’t know which will eventually be the best, and have all the characteristics you require. You can never stop, we’re always trying to make roses better.
“Despite all the advances in breeding techniques, modern English roses don’t live longer, although they are much healthier.
“However, you still can’t breed them for vase-life and a strong scent, so the stronger the fragrance, the shorter the life.
“There’s a perception that roses are hard to grow, and difficult to prune, but neither are true, although they do have a lifespan, which many people don‘t realise. It depends on the variety, but as a general rule, after 15 years, they’ve run their course and need replacing.”
Even Michael eventually pauses to draw breath, to hear a colleague muse about progress on a restoration project which is bringing a redundant farm building back to life.
With a dozen greenhouses on a single location, covering some 54,000 sq ft and using six tons of fertiliser every year, this is rose-growing on an industrial scale.
Yet the passion and commitment of all concerned is so evident, it’s as if they care deeply for each single bloom – even those which languish on the “didn‘t quite make it” pile at the rear of the greenhouses.
Austin’s head of marketing, Susan Rushton, is equally enthusiastic, as she offers her perspective about the company’s operations.
“We’ve printed 440,000 catalogues this year for Western Europe, about 150,000 for North America and 75,000 for Japan,” she says.
“We’re re-doing the web site at the moment, and hope to re-launch it during the summer, with the help of ApproachUs and HiggsDesign.
“We don’t have a massive marketing budget, but our business model has changed a lot from the days when Mr A used to keep the names of every customer in a little file box. However, we are very conscious that when you try to market products internationally, that you can easily fall into a horrible trap without seeing it, but so far we have been lucky.
“As an example of what can happen, we included a picture of a wreath of roses in our book, which was cut into two halves. Fortunately, someone told us that it would be seen as a symbol of bad luck in Japan, so that had to be scrapped.”
Susan also reveals that decisions about pruning sometimes have to be taken to the company – as well as its products.
“A few years ago, we stopped our licensed growers from producing some varieties, to encourage them to grow some of the newer ones we believed were better. We’re control freaks, because we do know these roses better than anyone else, and in some cases, we have had to take our plants away from growers.”
Such friction is now past though, and with the Japan launch smoothly under way, the business looks set for yet another solid year of growth.
The only downbeat note concerns Austin’s flamboyant peacocks.
The last hen appears to have flown, adding a tone of increasing frustration to their strident mating calls, and even living amid acres of gorgeous roses does nothing to ease their pain.