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A BOUNTY of CHOICES : This Spring, a Spectrum of New Plants Is Available to the Adventurous Gardener : 'New-Old' Roses

March 12, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

OLD ROSES ARE attractive to gardeners for their fragrant flowers and their distinctly old-fashioned look. But in California, truly "old" roses (as opposed to the hybrids) often turn out to be disappointing by modern standards. They typically bloom only once, in the spring, and many are susceptible to all sorts of rose diseases. That's why the "new-old" roses, created by David Austin in England, are generating great excitement among gardeners. Combining the fragrance and form of lovely old roses with the vigor of modern ones, Austin's hybridizing program has produced new-old roses that flower more frequently and tend to resist disease.

But the main reason for this recent excitement is that the new-old roses are just plain pretty. Pamela Ingram of Sassafras Nursery in Topanga describes them as "gushy"--many-petaled, ruffled and gently colored (Austin deliberately stayed away from garish colors). Shrubbier in shape than hybrid teas and floribundas, these roses can be placed among other plants as shrubs, rather than kept apart in a traditional rose bed.

These new-old roses, called Austin roses, are a diverse group with a host of ancestors. Garden books and literature have not yet pictured them, with the exception of "The Heritage of the Rose," by David Austin, published by Antique Collector's Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. In it, he devotes a chapter to these new-old roses, describing most of the varieties and how to care for them--in England.

Growers in California are still learning about these roses and making some interesting discoveries. The rose garden at Huntington Botanical Gardens, overseen by Clair Martin, has the largest collection in the ground. Martin has discovered that there, many new-old roses grow about twice as large as they do in England. For instance, the Austin catalogue suggests that 'Charles Austin' grows to 5 feet, but at the Huntington it became a haystack with arching 12-foot canes. Martin has found that some bloom off and on for almost the entire season, while others bloom less frequently. Most don't bloom as often as modern floribundas or hybrid teas.

Because they are so new, and because of California's strict rules concerning the importation of plants, finding Austin roses is an adventure in itself. Pamela Ingram, of Sassafras Nursery, and Mike and Sharon Morton, of Country Bloomers Nursery in Orange, carry a good assortment in 5-gallon cans. The two nurseries joined together on an order from a grower in Canada, avoiding the problems of direct importation.

Ingram adores 'The Squire,' a "pure, beautiful, crimson red" that has a touch of black within the full flower, and 'Wife of Bath,' a "perfectly scented, gushy rose with a cabbagey feeling" and blush-pink flowers that stay open for two weeks. Both varieties stay at about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall. 'Wife of Bath' looks like a floriferous version of an old cabbage rose. Mike Morton favors 'Windrush,' a soft-yellow rose much like the old 'Golden Wings,' that grows to about 6 feet, and 'Charmian,' a deep pink that flowers in great clusters and makes a mounding 6-foot-plus shrub that arches in old-rose fashion.

Sharon van Enoo, among the first to try the Austin roses (and who took the photographs on these pages), found that 'The Reeve' (growing to 5 feet) bloomed most frequently in her coastal Torrance garden. 'Graham Thomas' (to 6 or 7 feet) flowered the least--six flowers in all by her count--and was the greatest disappointment. "The colors that thrilled me the most were 'Chaucer' (growing to 4 feet) and 'Heritage' (to 5 feet)," she reports. " 'Chaucer' is a pearlized pink and 'Heritage' a pearlized apricot-pink. Both are breathtaking and fragrant." 'Charles Austin,' the 12-footer at the Huntington and equally large in Van Enoo's garden, came in a close third. She also likes 'Pretty Jessica,' 'Wife of Bath' and 'Prospero.' All of these stayed under 3 feet tall. Van Enoo noted that 'Chaucer' suffered the most mildew. Though most Austin roses in Van Enoo's garden have resisted disease, 'Heritage' was the most resistant.

Wayside Gardens' "A Gardener's Treasury," its mini-catalogue for spring, 1989 (mailing address: Hodges, S.C. 29695-0001), offers four other Austin roses: 'Othello,' 'English Elegance,' 'Swan' and 'The Countryman.' They are, however, listed as being in limited or very limited supply. Sassafras is located at 275 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga (213) 455-1933, and Country Bloomers Nursery is at 20091 E. Chapman Ave., Orange (714) 633-7222. If you should obtain any Austin rose, you could be the first on your block.

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