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Insights From Carl Bennett, Mastermind of David Austin Roses

Learn all about breeding innovations from a top breeder in the floral industry.

By: THURSD. | 07-05-2024 | 8 min read
Interviews Roses
David Austin Carl Bennett header on Thursd

At the core of David Austin Roses, a renowned leader in the floriculture sector, lies the expertise of Carl Bennett, the Hybridist & Breeding Manager. With a tenure extending over three decades, Bennett's role has been pivotal in steering the company's breeding programs toward new heights of innovation and aesthetic excellence.

So, grab a cup of tea or coffee, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy this in-depth interview that sheds light on Carl's methodologies, experiences, and the intrinsic philosophies that guide the breeding of world-class roses at David Austin.

Early Inspirations and Career Beginnings

Q: What inspired you to become a rose breeder, and how did your journey with roses begin?

Carl:

"From an early age, I had a fondness for plants, and indeed, nature in general. And so I hoped to have the opportunity to work with plants at some level.

My journey began some thirty-five years ago, right here at David Austin Roses. A position became available within the company, and I was fortunate to become part of the team.

An opportunity arose, after some time, to work alongside Mr. Austin Sr. within the then, rather small breeding dept. He inspired me with his passion for breeding and all things roses, I was fascinated by it all. I saw beauty in what he was doing instantly. He took me under his wing and nurtured me into the role I have now held for quite a few years, passing on his enthusiasm for improving the rose."

 

Carl Bennett David Austin Roses qoute

David Austin Carl Bennett in greenhouse
David Austin's Carl Bennett

 

Q: What is the best thing about your job?

Carl:

"Developing new roses is fascinating to me. There is little more pleasing than seeing a seedling flower for the first time and watching it progress. I have an urge to improve what has been done before; I never seem to be satisfied. A good trait for a plant breeder, I would say. At the same time, it can be just as frustrating when it fails. They are like children, you become rather attached to them."

 

David Austin rose plugs

 

The Foundations of David Austin Roses

Q: Can you share a bit about the history and philosophy behind David Austin Roses?

Carl:

"Mr. Austin had a passion for breeding beautiful roses, and to his eye, the old roses of the 19th century had pleasing flower form and wonderful fragrances, but lacked remontancy and had a limited color palette. These attributes were to be found in the modern Hybrid Tea roses of the day.

He combined these two types of roses and developed what is now known as English Roses — initially creating rose plants for the garden and subsequently, with his son, David Austin Junior, a collection of cut rose varieties designed for floristry.

That passion to breed beautiful roses with fragrance is still key today but with the dedication to improve their vigor, disease resistance, and overall performance."

 

David Austin filming day

David Austin rose fragance testing

 

Q: What qualities do you prioritize when breeding new cut rose varieties?

Carl:

"First and foremost: beauty. If a rose lacks both beauty and overall charm, then it certainly wouldn’t be considered for release. Regardless of how well it performs.

But of course, one must build in a good vase life, fragrance, and productivity, to name just a few necessities."

 

Rose Bessie diptych on Thursd
Rose Bessie™ (Ausperidot)

 

Q: As a breeder, what challenges do you face in creating new rose varieties that meet both aesthetic and practical criteria?

Carl:

"An English rose, whenever possible, must have fragrance. But here lies the eternal challenge for the cut rose breeder.

A long vase life and fragrance unfortunately do not always go together. The challenge is to get a good vase life with some fragrance and of course beauty of the bloom, high productivity, robustness as well as variety of color and shape. One of our newest varieties, Rose Millicent™ (AUSCP17431), is demonstrating how a good vase life can be achieved with beautiful rich fragrance — she is managing to captivate in her beauty, performance and fragrance."

 

Rose Millicent bouquet in vase
Rose Millicent™ (AUSCP17431)

 

Q: Could you tell us about any particularly memorable or cherished moments in your career as a rose breeder?

Carl:

"There are many, but I do remember fondly cutting blooms in the rain, which were to be used for photographs that were to be included in Mr. Austin’s second book 'David Austin’s English Roses'.

My most cherished moment was when he signed his last book, 'The Breathing Earth' for me. It was signed, "To Carl, thank you for all the good work we have done together". That summed everything up."

 

David Austin Sr on a bench with Bertie
The late David Austin Sr.

 

Industry Trends and Breeding Decisions

Q: What are some of the key trends you've observed in the floral industry that influence your breeding decisions?

Carl:

"Generally, we are not influenced by the industry, but of course, we are very mindful. There are the practicalities that a cut rose should possess, as previously mentioned, besides this, we breed for what we consider to be beautiful. This is most important.

Breeding for a trend, say color, is rather difficult as the process can take more than twelve years, so we breed for all tastes but always with a David Austin eye."

 

Q: Can you walk us through the process of developing a new rose variety, from the initial concept to its introduction to the market?

Carl:

"The process from the initial cross-pollination through the long and rather rigorous selection process takes up to twelve years, often longer. For example, our three new varieties, officially launched this year — Rose Hettie™ (AUSCP17117), Rose Millicent™ (AUSCP17431), and Rose Bessie™ (Ausperidot) — were born thirteen, twelve, and eleven years ago respectively. As a rose breeder, I have learned to be patient.

 

Rose Hettie Millicent Bessie triptych

 

The trialing takes place both here at the UK nursery, as well as with our growers including Alexandra Farms in Colombia; Rosaprima in Ecuador, Green Valley Floral in California, and Tambuzi in Kenya who all play a crucial role.

But constantly we are looking to the future. Each year, much time is spent considering which parents to cross. Months in fact. A continuous circle of evolution creates new generations of roses.  This year’s work coming to fruition in 2036 or thereabouts."

Q: How do you ensure that your roses not only look beautiful but also possess desirable fragrance characteristics?

Carl:

"The rose breeder must be observant. After the initial planning of which roses to cross, they must observe what happens in the resulting seedlings produced. This information is invaluable as it will tell you which path to follow. It’s a long journey, but you need to have a clear plan of what you desire and have an understanding of which characteristic a parent may/does pass on to its offspring. With this knowledge, you will try to merge all the desired traits into one rose."

 

Rose breeding process at David Austin

Rose breeding process at David Austin

 

Sustainability Practices

Q: Could you share any insights into sustainable practices within rose breeding and cultivation that you prioritize?

Carl:

"Here at David Austin Roses, we have implemented an ambitious plan called ‘Bloom’, which is our commitment to the future. We know that as breeders and growers of natural products, we have a duty of care for the environment, people, planet, and the wider community.

For our production facility, offices, and cold store we have solar panels installed across a number of our roofs. These panels are generating around 50% of our peak electrical needs; increasing to 80% of our needs in quieter periods. Eight years ago we installed a BioMass wood chip unit, which provides 100% of the heating for the rose-breeding glasshouse.

We also have a water catchment and recycling system for the whole nursery, which supplies all the nursery irrigation needs. Natural predators are used to control pests in all the glasshouses, display gardens, and the nursery. Of course, all the rose trials are no-spray trials."

 

Bloom logo by David Austin Roses

Bloom by David Austin Roses

 

Q: How do you balance tradition and innovation in your approach to rose breeding?

Carl:

"The breeding process is carried out the traditional way. There are means to aid with testing for disease tolerance, or chromosome manipulation to overcome parent incompatibility, for example, but we do find the traditional way satisfactory and generally more accurate. Seldom is there a shortcut."

 

David Austin breeding process pink rose

 

Q: Lastly, what keeps your passion for roses and the floral industry alive after all these years?

Carl:

"For myself, the desire to produce the perfect rose is strong. What is the perfect rose? I do not know. And maybe there isn’t such a thing, but I will always strive to make it. The possibilities are endless, as are the ideas. I always defer to Mr Austin’s view: "There is no such thing as a perfect rose so our work will never end but we will never stop looking for it …."

Being part of the floral industry means being part of a supportive global community of growers, wholesalers, designers, and enthusiasts. Our shared passion for flowers contributes to a sense of belonging and inspiration and with the floral industry ever-evolving, we are honored to play a part in this creativity. Ultimately, we love to see the joy our roses bring to people on the most special of life occasions."

A Testament to the Potential for Innovation and Excellence

In the floral world, Carl Bennett and his team at David Austin Roses represent a blend of passion, patience, and perseverance, continually pushing the boundaries of beauty and sustainability. For floral enthusiasts and professionals alike, their work is a testament to the art that can be achieved with dedication and a deep love for nature’s gifts.

What keeps Carl’s passion alive is the ceaseless quest for the perfect rose — a quest that is as elusive as it is motivating. "..., so our work will never end," he muses, echoing Mr. Austin's philosophy.

 

All photos courtesy of David Austin Wedding Roses. Photographer and stylist @Jannelford Roses.

 

David Austin 3 New Roses banner

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