Sic transit gloria mundi: David Ruston’s Roses

HRIA Journal 43: 3, spring 2021, pp 38-39.

Margaret Furness, Barossa & Beyond. (Updated from the Rose Letter, August 2020, of the Historic Roses Group, USA, and printed with permission.)

David Ruston OAM, rosarian par excellence and first president of the World Federation of Rose Societies, died in May 2019. His enormous collection of roses in South Australia was one of a kind, equal to or beyond the broad spectrum of roses found at ‘Mottisfont’, Europa Rosarium at Sangerhausen, and Roseraïe de l’Haÿ. His collection in Renmark contained roses found nowhere else, and at the time of his retirement had some 50,000 plants, of 4,000 cultivars and species, grown in the open.

David’s father had an 11ha (27 acre) vineyard, and planted more roses each year in the garden begun around the house in 1924. In the late 1940s, while at university, David had what was then called a nervous breakdown, and was advised by his doctor to go home and rest. His mother, growing tired of seeing him lying on a couch, threw a book on roses at him and told him to read it; and he found his belonging-place. He bought roses from Australian and overseas sources, and gradually his father’s vines were replaced (sometimes during his father’s absence). David felt that part of the property should be planted as a country garden, with dense mixed plantings and a background of trees. The shrubs and trees, as well as supplying floristry material, became windbreaks on the inland plain, and a haven for birds. The cut-flower business he built up was a significant employer in a small country town, and the annual Rose Festival he initiated is a major tourist event there.

David’s demonstrations of flower-arranging, with their wickedly funny commentary, became unforgettable events at national and international conferences. On his travels he kept an eye out for interesting vases and roses worth growing. For example, he saw that the brilliant colours of Pedro Dot roses would suit southern Australia’s Mediterranean climate.

David’s retirement in 2006 came after a long spell of drought in eastern Australia, in which the majority of independent garden shops closed down, and the number of rose nurseries selling heritage roses was dwindling rapidly. He continued to live in the house he was born in, in the midst of the roses. To give him an occupation in his retirement, members of Heritage Roses in Australia gathered in from all around the country what was intended to be a collection of all the known and unknown Teas, Chinas and Noisettes in Australia. Flood irrigation had been replaced by dripline watering and fertilising, and David’s niece Anne, who bought the business, filled the old irrigation channels with soil for us to use as planting beds. We should have stopped there, as Renmark is too hot for working bees in summer, and the nearest HRIA member at the time lived 3 hours’ drive away. Led by David’s enthusiasm, the Collection was extended, especially to Pernetianas and pre-WWII Hybrid Teas, and post-1800 spring-flowerers which public gardens didn’t welcome. We had overstepped what we could manage, and even though two new local members did what they could, as David’s health declined it became evident how much we had depended on him.

Management of the property was modernised, because labour had become too expensive, but things went downhill. Mechanical pruning into old wood reduced the flower crops. Powerful spray machines blew away the grape marc mulch which had been an effective weed-suppressant. Like many other large nurseries, the business became dependent for survival on a restaurant on site, and hosting weddings and other festivities.
For some years HRIA had seen the writing on the wall, and had been propagating roses from our Collection and seeking public gardens around the country willing to plant them, as backup; but we had more than enough to do without extending the work to older and newer roses. We were caught unawares by some developments.

After some years the property was put up for sale. For four years it languished while overseas buyers kept promising to sign the contract “next week”. Weeds thrived on the fertigation regime, and R. bracteata invaded some cut-flower rows. The prospective buyers intended to import rose petals for food into China, and so a substantial area of cut-flower beds was replaced by Mr Lincoln (HT 1964) plants. Unfortunately the area included much of David’s collection of old roses and the Tea rows he planted in the 1970s. Pat Toolan and Billy West tried to persuade the owners to keep some of the old plants for their aesthetic and historic value, and as education for the students of the proposed international Horticultural University on site, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Watering was withdrawn from the area of Old European roses, with a view to replacing them with food plants. Then the rules were changed for working visas (no no no, the international students weren’t intended to be cheap labour), and the deal fell through. After ill-health forced David to transfer to a nursing home, c. 2018, his house was let to a tenant who kept a goat tethered in the garden around it. We were glad David didn’t see the worst of the decline.

The property was eventually bought by a businessman, who soon found that it was too hard to manage from a distance of 250km when his health became a problem. In 2019 it was re-sold to a Renmark quarrying firm. By this stage the later-planted beds of the HRIA Collection had become unsalvageable due to horrendous weed growth, and the bushes were slashed to ground-level. The owners intended to maintain the original Tea-Noisette-China bed as an asset to tourism. They have had problems too: the local distillery will no longer buy petals for rose vodka, although it sells very well, because the rose scent taints everything else they produce.

Recent subdivisions make very small house blocks, and salesmen boast that they have planted “low-maintenance gardens” – eg. of agapanthus, which are declared Weeds of National Significance. In recent years more nurseries which were major sellers of heritage roses have closed or changed their focus to moderns. In particular, the sudden deaths of the owners of Mistydowns nursery and of Roses and Friends nursery were serious blows to sourcing a wide range of heritage roses. As another blow, we discovered that we had been unduly complacent about the retirement in September 2019 of the owners of Thomas for Roses nursery, which had many 1930s and 40s roses no-one else was listing. They were going to keep all their stock plants, and there was a potential buyer in the offing. But in December 2019 part of their display garden and nursery area was in the path of an unstoppable bushfire. Droughts and bushfires can only get worse with climate change. The future of heritage roses in Australia is precarious.

What do we have left of David’s heritage? Many rarities in various locations, and we will keep trying to find other “safe” places for them. Photos taken on his property, documenting for what some rarities – many now gone – looked like in the flesh; material for the Journal. Rose books written with the late photographer James Young, and A Life with Roses, written with Sue Zwar.   Many memories.

As of spring 2020, HRIA members no longer have special access to the Collection; propagating material, and perhaps photography, must be pre-arranged and paid for.

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