Imagine buying a bunch of roses. Were it not for my picture, you’d probably have brought to mind hybrid tea roses – the ones with pretty buds on straight stems that are so widely available.
Breeders have been developing a new type of cut rose, inspired by old garden roses. Often mistaken for peonies, these blowsy beauties are almost like a new type of flower.
These cut garden roses are more expensive and florists who work with them need to have a little know-how: for example, they need time to open and, unlike many other cut flowers, they don’t like to be misted. And even the top breeders will admit that their programmes are still a work in progress.
Combining fragrance with a decent enough vase life for the demands of floristry has proved particularly elusive. It’s a commonplace idea that we all have different tastes, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who would choose a scentless rose in preference to an identical one with a strong and beautiful fragrance.
One thing the breeders really have got down is the flower forms: these new roses all look as if they’ve been freshly snipped from shrubs in the garden. Over time, each plump flower bud will gradually spill out into a full, rosette style bloom with a decidedly antique character.
The first of these new varieties to really catch on was ‘Juliet’; a rose with wonderful, cupped, many-petalled flowers in an unusual shade of soft, peachy apricot that’s still very popular for floristry today.
I joined the company that bred it, David Austin Roses, as Head of Marketing, not long after its release. The programme to develop these new roses had cost so much in time and money that its first real success, Rosa ‘Juliet’, acquired the nickname ‘the million pound rose’. For a few heady days following a press release, the UK press virtually besieged us, demanding comments, extra information and photo opportunities with our rose starlet.
We rapidly ran out of open blooms to show off. I remember having to draw the line when a pushy photographer wanted an attractive but naturally shy member of our team to pose with it while lying down in the canal garden. I was glad it was good news we were dealing with, not bad, and just wished we’d had a few more roses to sell!
Shortly after, we invited the talented Claire Cowling to give a floristry demonstration for visitors to the nursery. The event had raised quite a crowd.
Claire began by creating a tapestry of fine-leafed foliage as a backdrop for her arrangement. After working deftly for a few minutes, she lifted up an old black plastic bucket, which we’d stuffed to overflowing with ‘Juliet’ roses, so she could begin to add them in to her design.
A few days before the event, we’d unwrapped the rose buds, trimmed their stems and spaced them well apart in water so they had time to open. We knew these roses would have far more of a ‘wow! factor’ once they’d reached their full, rosette stage.
As the audience saw the open roses for the first time, a loud, spontaneous gasp of amazement and delight passed around the room. It’s not a sound we marketeers hear too often. I looked down at my arms and realised they were covered in goosebumps.
We were familiar with these unusual roses, but through witnessing such a powerful response from the crowd, I was able to see their striking, rosette shaped blooms and pure, glowing colours afresh, through their eyes. It was clear we had something very special on our hands.
A decade later, though I no longer work with these beauties, the magic remains. I still smile with pleasure whenever I see ‘Juliet’ being used by designers around the world. If you’re curious, I’ve a Pinterest board dedicated to ‘Juliet’ and a few other garden-style cut roses – take a look at them here.
I’ve often wondered what makes this rose so alluring. It doesn’t have much fragrance, or the longest vase life.
My sweetheart enjoys incorporating the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi in his garden. A direct translation is impossible, but it includes ideas such as simplicity, natural beauty, transience, imperfection, blending old with new. Hearing him point out an example of this recently during a lecture made me wonder whether wabi-sabi might play a part in the rose’s appeal.
By reinventing a very traditional flower form in a contemporary shade of peach – a big departure from the original shades of pinks, whites and crimsons our grandmothers and their grandmothers would have known – Rosa ‘Juliet’ has a unique look that is just as fresh today as when it was first released.
You may not have noticed it before, but once you start to look out for it, you’ll be surprised how widely you’ll see ‘Juliet’ used in garden-inspired bouquets, arrangements and all kinds of floral designs, particularly for events and weddings. If you’re already familiar with it, there’s a good chance that like me, you’ve fallen for its charms.