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David Austin Roses: From Traditional to Contemporary

Floral reporter Bruce Wright joined the world’s floral elite at the 2018 symposium of the American Institute of Floral Designers (AIFD). He witnessed first hand three very different design styles using David Austin garden roses. All David Austin roses showcased at the symposium were kindly supplied by Alexandra Farms, Colombia; Green Valley Floral, California; and RosaPrima, Ecuador, who are three of just a handful of growers in the world who are authorized to grow David Austin varieties. Read on as he paints a picture of his experience at this annual flower extravaganza.

David Austin English garden roses are justly famous around the world for their subtle hues; for their large, exquisitely textured blossoms; for the way they open slowly and hold; and above all for their delicious scent. Today that reputation extends not only to the original family of David Austin shrub roses, but also to the newer varieties bred for performance as cut flowers.

It’s natural to think of these English-bred beauties for hand- tied bridal bouquets or stately centerpieces in the classic style. But is that the only way to showcase their distinctive qualities? How do you make the most of David Austin cut roses—striving for the optimum not only in pleasurable enjoyment, but also in return on your investment in these premium flowers?

At the 2018 Annual Symposium of the American Institute of Floral Designers, some of the world’s most admired floral artists demonstrated their preference for David Austin cut roses—and with it, the versatility of these roses in elevating a wide variety of design styles. Such luminaries as social media star Holly Heider Chapple and World Cup champion Alex Choi AIFD revealed techniques and strategies for working with David Austin varieties. So also did three designers chosen to represent the prestigious European Master Certification (EMC) program created by Tomas de Bruyne AIFD and Hitomi Gilliam AIFD.

Holly’s Way

Among other factors in the sensational rise of Holly Heider Chapple to become the top trend setter in wedding florals today, Holly has long promoted the idea of mixing commercially grown cut flowers with materials harvested from the garden: abelia, mountain laurel, even home-grown, in-season peonies and hydrangeas. Starting from that premise, cut roses in the garden style become the natural choice for that most essential component of any bridal bouquet, the rose.

Holly Heider Chapple
Holly Heider Chapple

And Holly was clear about her predilection for David Austin varieties. “Juliet is probably the first David Austin rose I touched and fell in love with,” she told the audience during her stage program. “But Constance is my absolute favorite garden rose.” In one bouquet, she combined blush pink, cup-shaped Constance with lace-cap hydrangeas and other flowers cut from her own extensive garden in Virginia. In another, she complemented bright red flowers and berries with Juliet roses in soft peach—a daring and unusual combination that Holly described as “perfect.”

Stretching across the stage for Holly’s program at AIFD Symposium was an impressive wall and archway, topped with thousands of David Austin roses. Here too, as in a typical Holly Chapple bouquet, the roses are not crammed together but placed in such a way that the rose heads can be seen and appreciated individually. The effect is one of depth and naturalistic elegance.

Modern Natural with Alex Choi

Minimalism might not be what you first think of when you think of David Austin roses, with their abundant petals and generous fragrance. Nonetheless, David Austin varieties are the favorite roses of Alex Choi AIFD, the Interflora World Cup winner from South Korea, who gave his program at AIFD Symposium the title, “Less Is More.”

“Once I had used these roses, I didn’t want to use any others!” he says. “A David Austin rose draws attention to itself with its awesome scent. It has its own power of presence. When I use it in a design, it elevates the whole level of the design to a very elegant, luxurious look.”

Alex Choi
Alex Choi

Although Alex’s work could be described as contemporary, it is not austere. “You could call my style Modern Natural,” he said from the AIFD stage. “Usually you would think that modern and natural are contrasting concepts. You would think of modern as compact, square, limited, contained, and of natural as airy, spreading… but when you put them together, that creates a tension that makes beauty.”

David Austin roses bring the “natural,” garden-inspired side of the equation into Alex’s designs. At the same time, his characteristic approach to using them is to give each blossom space, within an overall strategy that emphasizes line and transparency. This is a hallmark of contemporary floral design that also happens to show the beauty of David Austin roses to advantage.

The classic David Austin wedding rose, Patience, is used in one of Alex Choi’s modern designs to create a vertical display.
The classic David Austin wedding rose, Patience, is used in one of Alex Choi’s modern designs to create a vertical display.

Like many European designers, Alex relies heavily on water tubes to achieve his effects. American designers aren’t as accustomed to water tubes, but Alex showed how to make them user-friendly. In the workroom at Symposium, helpers utilized a handy technique for replenishing water (mixed with flower food) in the water tubes, with a squeeze bottle equipped with a downward-facing spout. On stage, Alex introduced an invention of his own that allows him to position water tubes freely and precisely: wire brackets with rings to hold the water tubes and long arms that can be bent into hooks on each end.

In a departure from his usual style, for his Symposium program Alex created four panels spelling out the letters AIFD, using David Austin roses and the new black floral foam from Oasis Floral Products. “It’s not my typical style to cut roses very short like this,” he noted, nor indeed to use floral foam at all. It’s notable, however, that for this special purpose he first measured the diameter of the David Austin roses, knowing they are larger than ordinary roses, in order to calculate the number that would be needed. Then, placing the roses into the foam, he took care to stagger the depth of his insertions, creating more space around the rose heads than would be the case with a classic pavé.

Taking European Style to the Bank

It turns out, then, that contemporary design techniques from Europe and Asia may be better adapted than traditional styles for making the most of David Austin roses. Leaving space around the individual blossoms can reveal the lovely shape of a deep cup or rosette from all sides, not just the frilly top. Combining ruffled David Austin roses with glossy anthuriums (following the trend known as tropical nouveau) makes for a striking contrast in texture. Scattered through a composition that emphasizes line movement, the round heads of exquisite garden roses provide perfect resting places for the eye.

On stage with Julia Schmitt AIFD, EMC and Hitomi Gilliam AIFD
On stage with Julia Schmitt AIFD, EMC and Hitomi Gilliam AIFD

All those ideas came to the fore in a Symposium program featuring designers from the EMC group—graduates of the prestigious European Master Certification program, conceived and carried out by Tomas de Bruyne AIFD and Hitomi Gilliam AIFD. For example, in contrast to the traditional hand-tied bouquet featuring roses, in which the heads are pressed compactly together,

Julia Schmitt AIFD, EMC created a showcase for Constance roses with a construction (what in the USA would be called an armature) made with two kinds of wire, including Oasis etched wire in a matte steel color, curled into a filigree design. The construction separates the rose heads, giving each one full play in the design.

Julia Schmitt AIFD, EMC
Julia Schmitt AIFD, EMC

“The concept of our program was to give designers the inspiration they need, not just to succeed artistically, but also financially,” says EMC leader Hitomi Gilliam AIFD. “To me David Austin roses are the perfect example of beauty that justly commands a high price. It’s really the only brand in the world of cut flowers that customers can identify by name. Certainly it’s the only one that covers a whole family of varieties, all different but all with the same qualities that you don’t get from any other brand: the sophisticated fragrance, the extraordinary palette. That’s why any time you use a David Austin rose, it needs to be the star."


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