Flower power at Chelsea: In search of the perfect rose

After 12 years and £3m, one of the country's most famous breeders has finally come up with blooms which combine beauty and scent. Terry Kirby reports
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The Independent Online

On Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, we give and receive roses in their millions. They are sent to celebrate a birth, customary in buttonholes at weddings and are usually in the funeral wreath. And every day, we buy them with scarcely a thought as to where they came from and the vast industry that lies behind the simple cut rose. But when, instinctively, we hold them to our noses to inhale that delicate aroma what happens? The modern rose has lost its smell.

So, how did the scent of the rose, one of the very qualities for which it was first prized, disappear? The problem lies in the global trade in roses - particularly cut ones - while the solution is a testament to our enduring obsession for this particular bloom and all it represents.

Now, after 12 years and £3m worth of research, David Austin Roses, one of Britain's biggest breeders and a mainstay of traditional blooms, has produced a series of new varieties. All are on show this week at the Chelsea Flower Show.

And much is at stake. When Gertrude Stein wrote in 1913, "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,'' she was considerably off the mark. There are now many thousand different hybrid varieties of roses, developed for all kinds of reasons - for the cut flower industry, public displays and for domestic garden cultivation. It is a multibillion-pound market.

Although the rose is the flower most intimately associated with all things English - the cottage garden, the English Rugby team, the ancient symbols of the Red Rose of Lancashire and the White of Yorkshire - most rose varieties come from China and Japan. And most of the cut roses sold here are now grown in Columbia or Kenya.

Roses originated in temperate, northern climates - although some have adapted to more tropical regions - which is why they have thrived in the British climate. While some wild roses are native to Britain, the Romans are believed to have bought the first cultivated roses to these shores and the typical white rose of the English cottage garden is its direct descendant. These and many other similar varieties are what are commonly termed as Old Garden Roses and are usually perfumed.

As mass demand for roses grew during the late 19th and then the 20th century, commercial breeders using the Old Garden Rose varieties as a base developed new versions grown for size and colour, producing large, attractive blooms, with little or no scent. The main mass-produced rose became a Hybrid Tea Rose, one with five or six flowers per stem, with a small number of thick, tightly arranged petals. The scent, which is dependent on a large number of open petals, became secondary to a flower which survived transport when cut. And as techniques improved, breeders began to reduce the scent gene because it caused petals to age fast and fall off quickly.

However, according to David Stevens, an award-winning garden designer and a member of the board of the Royal National Garden Society, the idea that modern roses simply had their scent bred out of them was never quite correct. "It is a bit of a red herring," he said. "Because there were many varieties of roses which either had very little or no fragrance. Now, more and more cut blooms are fragrant although florists roses are totally different to Old Garden Roses - which always had more scent - because they are bred for a longer shelf life."

It was the gap between the hardy but dull Hybrid Tea and the Old Garden Rose that David Austin Roses set out to bridge in the early 1990s, aware that success would give them a substantial and lucrative slice of the market.

David Austin Roses, based in Albrighton in Shropshire, has long been considered the benchmark producer of traditional English roses for the garden. David Austin, now 80, began the company in the early 1960s, creating "new" Old Garden Roses.

Despite trends towards spiky plants and grasses, of decking, gravel and gardens being about everything but lawns and flowers, they have continued their traditional ways - producing about 900 varieties of roses, with names such as Gentle Hermione, The Shepherdess and Summer Song.

The company, which now employs 100 people, runs one of the largest rose-breeding programmes in the world, carrying out more than 150,000 crosses each year, producing about 400,000 seeds. From these about 250,000 seedlings will germinate from which each year's new varieties to be launched at Chelsea are selected after nine years of trialling. These are now divided equally between garden and cut flowers.

The aim with the cut flower project was to produce a rose that looked and smelt like an English garden rose, but was able to survive a cutting and shipping process of between three and five days and then at least five days in the vase. David Austin, son of the founder and current managing director, said: "We felt the cut rose was in danger of losing the very thing that made it so well-loved - its soul, if you like. We believed that if we could introduce some of the forms and the charm and grace of our garden roses into cut roses we'd have something remarkable on our hands."

Taking about 20 of their hardiest varieties, the company began a painstaking process of breeding, growing and cutting. About 60,000 cross fertilisations were involved to find the right end result.

By 2004, the company thought it had the answer and launched its first three cut roses, named, in typical David Austin style, after Shakespeare's heroines: Olivia, Juliet and Portia. But like most cut flowers, commercial considerations meant they had to be grown in Kenya, which produces about a quarter of all cut flowers on sale in the UK. But only two out of three survived, as Susan Rushton, the company's spokeswomen, explained: "Our roses need to be grown more slowly than conventional cut roses to allow them to develop their large flower heads. When we moved production to Kenya, Juliet performed really well, but the climate didn't suit Olivia and Portia. They grew a little too quickly and we lost the size and quality."

The company went back to the drawing board - or rather the nursery - and came up with two further varieties, Rosalind and Miranda, which along with Juliet have been on limited sale. All three are in pink and apricot tones, with Rosalind deemed to have a fruity fragrance and the best chance of surviving longest in the vase. Miranda has a larger head and hints of green, with a delicate fragrance. Demand has been such that the company has none left until early next month, although they are available through commercial florists.

The question remains whether roses are a bit, well, fuddy duddy, in a market where exotic tropical blooms such as birds of paradise flowers and amaryllis can be found in every High Street florist. Jane Packer, the floral designer credited with giving the art of cut flowers a contemporary edge, remains a fan: "They are definitely one of my top five flowers. There are so many different varieties now, so many colours and shapes. I would not use them automatically in a commission, it depends on the client and the room. Although the trend was all tropical flowers in the 1990s I think there is a softer look now and all the lovely garden flowers are coming back. But you don't have to arrange them with the 'Laura Ashley look' in mixed bunches - you can get a great contemporary effect by just putting a mass of one type of roses in a big, tall vase."

And David Austin will be hoping that Juliet Miranda, Rosalind and yet more unnamed roseswill be among those gracing Ms Packer's vases. Because, as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: "What's in a name. That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet ..."

Cleve West, The Independent's Urban Gardener columnist, has won a prestigious Royal Horticultural Society gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show with his design for the Saga Insurance Garden.

His inspiration was the importance of herbs, not only for culinary use, but also in medicinal remedies and in the home - using lavender to scent linen, for example. The design contrasted the flowers and foliage of the herbs against a series of monumental concrete sculptures, some of which catch and store rainwater, and a contemplative "space" guarded by a line of pollarded field maples. Cleve was one of seven gold medal winners in the Show Gardens category at Chelsea this year. Jekka McVicar, whose nursery, Jekka's Herb Farm, supplied all the herbs for Cleve West's garden, won an 11th gold medal, beating the record set for a female exhibitor by Beth Chatto. Victoria Summerley