Don't call me a snob, but I don't want a dozen long-stemmed red roses for Valentine's Day. Flowers thrill me, but not the ubiquitous red roses.
How did the American public get fixated on the red rose as the ultimate symbol of St. Valentine's Day, anyway? To me, the distinctive rose fragrance is as important as the visual display, but most cut roses today have had the fragrance bred out of them in favor of uniformity in shape and extended vase life.
Balking at uniformity is what brought Englishman David Austin's eventual fame among gardeners around the world. A Shropshire farmer's son born in 1926, he set out to create rose hybrids that restored fragrance and heirloom cabbage-rose form but retained modern roses' reblooming trait and wider color range.
In 1970, Austin started a small nursery to introduce the new breed he named English Roses. But it wasn't until he introduced 'Graham Thomas' and 'Mary Rose' in 1983 that the clamor for David Austin Roses began.
Austin's roses are sold today in retail nurseries throughout the United States and by mail order from the British company's U.S. distribution center in Tyler, Texas, established in 1999 because of plant quarantine restrictions. In addition, Chamblee's Rose Nursery in Tyler raises own-root Austin roses for sale to retailers and the public, as opposed to the grafted specimens marketed by the English company.
Austin's newest venture is selling cut flowers from hybrids developed over 15 years of intensive breeding. Until recently, they were available for weddings and other occasions only through select floral shops. But this Valentine's Day, you can order them from David Austin by the dozen for next-day delivery on Tuesdays through Fridays.
The roses bred for the cut-flower business share characteristics for which David Austin's garden roses are renowned: a profusion of petals that, in some hybrids, flatten into a broad head to reveal their hearts and in others retain a chalice-like shape. The fragrances range from almost indiscernible to hints of myrrh, fruitiness, lilac or old-rose muskiness.
"We cherish a little bit of individuality rather than plastic, Xeroxed" look-alikes, says Shropshire-based Susan Rushton, head of marketing for David Austin Roses. "We're the kind of company that worries about each petal. We do look at the finer details."
Customers have a choice of ordering a single variety or a mixed bouquet of colors. There's peachy 'Juliet,' buttermilk 'Patience,' pink 'Phoebe' and more. The roses are battened down in their long, sturdy box and kept cool by blue-ice packs. A glass vase is included, in case the recipient does not have her own containers.
The flowers, sustainably grown in Salinas, Calif., arrive as open buds. Unlike most long-stemmed roses I have purchased, the English roses are fully open within a day. In my experience, tightly budded roses sometimes never open to share their voluptuous beauty. That's when the room fills with that transporting, cut-from-the-garden scent that makes a rose a rose.
Rushton says Austin breeders have discovered that "the stronger the fragrance, the shorter the vase life." 'Darcey,' a deep maroon red, has the longest vase life, "but it is almost unscented. It's much more difficult to breed for both characteristics.
"It's a most complicated thing, isn't it, the fragrance in flowers?" Rushton says. "People have completely different perceptions of scent." She deems 'Rosalind,' 'Phoebe' and 'Patience' as the cut roses with the strongest fragrances. 'Cymbeline' has "a very, very powerful scent of myrrh, but some people cannot smell myrrh at all."
If you recut the stems and replenish the water when it clouds, David Austin's roses are guaranteed to stay fresh at least five days. That's the difference between roses snipped from bushes in the backyard and these hybrids. My garden-grown heirloom roses shatter when I put them in a vase, often within minutes.
To order David Austin English Roses, call 1-800-328-8893 or see www.davidaustinroses.com. Click on the American flag on the opening page so you get prices in dollars, not British pounds. Bouquet prices range from $80 to $125, not including shipping.
Scroll down to the bottom of the home page, under the heading "Customer Services," and click on "Search by ascending price"; I found that link less confusing than those at the top of the page. Under the heading "The Roses" you can learn the attributes of each hybrid.
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