David Austin's garden rose breeding programme is one of the largest in the world. For the last 15 years, he has also been working to develop his beautiful cut roses.
Pollen is collected, carefully labelled, dried and stored. The multi-petalled English Roses often have very little pollen, which creates a challenge for the breeding process. Up to 150,000 individual crosses will be made each season. The stamens are removed from the flower head to prevent self-fertilisation and the pollen is carefully brushed onto the flower.
Successful crosses will form ripe, plump orange or red hips. The hips are harvested and labelled. Each precious seed is carefully removed. After a period of cold, the seeds are planted. Seedlings start to germinate in the spring and the greenhouses quickly become full of tiny green shoots. Not all seeds are viable, but each year, over 250,000 seedlings will grow. The first seedlings will flower after only 6 or 8 weeks. Each rose will be unique. The diversity of roses used in the English Rose breeding pool helps to create great variety in their offspring. A large collection of old roses, species roses and modern roses are used, together with the best parent plants from the English Roses.
As well as beauty and fragrance, the selectors working with David Austin look for an almost indefinable characteristic: grace. This is the special quality which we feel sets the English Roses apart from other roses. It is important to make sure that a wonderful rose is not discarded too early in the process, so many more roses are selected than will eventually be needed.
The aim of our breeding programme is not only to create more English Rose varieties, but also to identify good parents. These are roses which reliably pass on desirable characteristics to their offspring. The knowledge and stock of parent plants built up over time helps to give the English Roses their unique character and beauty. The majority of these parents will never be released for sale.
The team selects for colour, form and fragrance initially, then the seedlings move on to further tests in the fields. Many years of field trials are needed to highlight the seedlings which have outstanding garden performance year after year, to match the beauty of their flowers. The most outstanding seedlings go on to undergo up to eight years of field trials.
The seedlings are budded onto a high quality rootstock and will be assessed over the following season. The ones which show the most promise are multiplied by further budding each year. This means that each potential new variety can be assessed in larger quantities.
In the final year of trials, each seedling will have been transformed into a row of 200 plants and the trial field will look simply stunning. It seems amazing to many of our visitors that these lovely plants will be reselected until only the very best five or six remain. Over recent years, the trial fields have not been heavily sprayed for pests and diseases. This is quite a challenge for our young roses, as in a monoculture, where only a single kind of plant is grown, pests and diseases are much more likely to flourish. The advantage of this is that only the healthiest varieties will survive testing. We can be confident that if our roses perform well under our trial conditions, they will be even more outstanding when given a little care, grown in good garden conditions. David Austin says that the planning of the crosses is his favourite part of the breeding process. This is a relatively relaxed but highly creative process. Although successful rose breeding depends on meticulous planning and requires close attention to the minutest details, chance will always play a significant part. This creates much of the fascination of rose breeding as results cannot ever be accurately predicted.