David Austin Roses
Garden with English Roses. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Near the close of the year, an icon slipped quietly away, leaving behind a legacy of beauty the likes of which few in horticulture will surpass.  The death of David Charles Henshaw Austin, 92, on December 18 was the closing of a life spent breeding a line of roses that sparks the romantic in all of us.

Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension
Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

David Austin created English Roses, the fragrant, multi-petalled flowers that few can resist stopping to smell. Their gorgeous hues and come-hither scent enchant experts and novices alike, but, like the gentleman behind the flower, are down to earth.

“They’re beautiful, fragrant, and easy to grow; that has a lot to do with their popularity,” says Mary Kirby, Master Rosarian with the Denver Rose Society. “People just love them. The conditions in my yard aren’t great but I’ve never lost one.”

What sets the Austins apart from other shrubs are their point of origin, England, and their hybridizer, David Austin. All of the Austins currently on the market are the result of the vision of one man; it was his lifetime of work to combine old roses and fragrance into modern hybrids.

Shrubs, climbers, ramblers and tree-types make up the family of Austin English Roses, all of which seduce the gardener with perfume.  They’re at home in most locations, although you should consider keeping them close to where you can enjoy their scent.

“I grow them because I love fragrance in my garden, and the Austin Hybrids have a wide range of fragrances – damask rose, clove, citrus, peaches, myrrh and more,” said Carol Macon, Master Consulting Rosarian with the Denver Rose Society. “They’re very versatile; there are Austins that can be grown as hedges, pillar roses and climbers, those that are suitable for very small spaces and everything in-between. Also, the more recent of the Austin introductions are disease resistant. I don’t spray pesticides of any kind, so disease resistance is important to me.”

Macon said that most Austins respond well to our Front Range climate; they love our many days of sunshine. But she cautioned “not all of the Austins work here primarily because of hardiness issues. They are bred in a relatively mild English climate with a longer growing season; therefore, a few of them are not hardy enough to make it through our long, cold, mountain winters. Most are USDA zone 5 hardy.”

Austin varieties with a great many petals may tend to ball, and some of them have nodding heads, which may not appeal, so it is best to do some research before you buy. The most popular Austin varieties are generally the best ones for this area, Macon said.

Kirby, who manages the Denver Rose Society social media (visit them on Facebook or Instagram) recommends Heritage, a pink rose, Lilian (salmon-pink), or Queen Nefertiti (apricot-pink). She’ll be highlighting a different Austin rose each month on their Facebook page to honor their creator.

Macon loves Abraham Darby (peach-pink), Golden Celebration (gold), and Graham Thomas, one of the most popular of the Austin roses and 2009 World Federation of Rose Society’s Favorite Rose.  Planted in a sunny spot with protection from the north and west, Graham Thomas produces butter-yellow flowers.

In spring, plant them in full sun with a three-inch layer of mulch.  Macon suggests top dressing with Mile Hi Rose Food and watering two to three inches of water a week. Then be patient as they take three to four years to mature to full production; during this time keep pruning to a minimum by only removing dead wood.

Pruning established Austins may vary based on the type and cultivar; some are fussy while others don’t mind a haircut. Talk with a rosarian to learn what works best for your Austin rose (denverrosesociety.org). 

By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension of Boulder County. CSU Extension together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail comeara@bouldercounty.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.