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Oh-so-romantic English Roses

David Austin roses combine the best characteristics of modern and old-fashioned roses.

CHARMING: Othello is one of the earlier English Roses, hybridized in 1986. It has an old-fashioned rose fragrance.

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When I'm giving a lecture on roses, I often begin by joking with the audience that my presentation could be hazardous to their health. You see, I know better than most that once "rose fever" sets in, there is no cure. No matter how many roses one has, there will always be a more appealing one coming up in the next garden catalog. That means rose fever can also be hazardous to the pocketbook.

I contracted a rare strain called English Rose fever while living in London in the early 1990s. It was there that I discovered a majority of British rose gardens looked nothing like the ones I'd planted with lonely rows of prissy hybrid tea rosebushes. Instead, roses were part of the overall landscape and many had charming, Victorian-looking, fragrant blooms that took me back to summers on my grandmother's farm.

I assumed these roses were antiques; however, they were actually a new class of "old fashioned" roses created by David Austin. As a result of a hybridizing program initiated in the 1950s, he captured the appealing features of roses introduced prior to 1867 – such as cupped or rosette-shaped flowers and strong fragrance – in bushes that have the repeat bloom and vigor of modern roses.

That appeal was not lost on admiring Americans, who stood in line to buy roses with names like William Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Wise Portia. Almost 20 years later, many of the initial Austin introductions have fallen out of favor. But interest in newer, more disease-resistant varieties remains strong all across the country.

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