Grünes Blut meets with Christian Schultheis in December 2017 in his office at Rosenhof Schultheis in Steinfurth, Bad Nauheim.
Despite the cold season, romantic notions of rose arches and bouquets lured me on to the traditional firm of Schultheis, the oldest rose nursery in Germany. The Rosenhof (rose farm), established in 1868, forms the heart of the rose cultivation industry in the small village of Steinfurth, Germany’s most well-known rose town. During the boom of the 1980s up to 14 million roses were produced every year on this fertile Wetterau soil. Upon arrival, it didn’t take me long to tear myself away from my daydreams and allow the down-to-earth Mr Schultheis to take me on a wild ride through the history of rose cultivation.
Read: 20 min
Text: Christian Schultheis, Anke Schmitz ∗ Text editing: Anke Schmitz ∗ Fotos: Anke Schmitz ∗ Translation: Gisela Lindeque
GB: Mr Schultheis, the rose is described as the queen of flowers. As the fifth-generation leader of the oldest rose nursery in Germany, how do you personally feel about roses?
CS: That’s a great question. Basically, roses are what my family started cultivating 150 years ago. If my ancestors had produced tomatoes, then I would probably be growing vegetables. So, that’s how roses proverbially fell into my lap.
GB: How long have you been actively involved in the business?
CS: In principle, I’ve always been involved. Even as a lad I used to help my dad sell roses on the market. When I was a teenager, I had other aspirations for a while. After my Abitur, I wanted to study medicine. I subsequently did my civil service in the cardiac surgery department in Bad Nauheim. I had to do 15 months at that time, and I soon realised medicine wasn’t for me. It’s extremely difficult to work in a hospital! You have to deal with all types of diseases and issues. It’s something you need to be passionate about. My patients kept saying to me, “Rosen Schultheis – but that’s wonderful. Why aren’t you doing that?” Then I started thinking, “Yes, why not?” So, I went to Weihnstephan and studied horticultural engineering for five years.
If you’re involved with roses and have just a bit of intelligence, I think you can learn the most important aspects within two years.
GB: Were you exposed to any other areas of horticulture during your studies?
CS: During my time at FH we had some practical semesters. In one of these I worked at Rosen Kordes in Elmshorn, and in another I worked in England for half a year at Notcutts Nurseries, part of a large chain of nurseries. There I didn’t focus on roses, but on plants in general and specifically on improving my English language skills. As in business, the language used in the horticultural field is very specialised. Not the type of vocabulary that you learn at school.
GB: So, there was a lot to learn…
CS: If you’re involved with roses and have just a bit of intelligence, I think you can learn the most important aspects within two years. But there are always things that you need to stay on top of. So even while I was studying, I became interested in rose breeding, and I couldn’t understand why my ancestors had never started breeding.
GB: I also wondered about that during my research…
CS: It was probably because there never used to be cultivar protection and it was very difficult to protect species from illicit cultivation. In fact, the current licensing system developed out of this situation. At that time rose nurseries merely used to buy a new rose and then increase it. And you would have to pay ridiculous prices for a new rose. I know how upset my ancestors used to become about the amount of money invested in a new rose. It was like buying a new car today. Because of the circumstances at that time, my ancestors were afraid that their knowledge and their roses would be stolen. Therefore, they decided not to breed.
GB: How did your family previously acquire new cultivars?
CS: We used to have a breeder, Henry Bennett, in England. I don’t know whether he bred only for us or for others as well. Anyway, we got many rose cultivars exclusively from him, and then we would bring them on the market. We also had a second breeder in the Taunus region, Christoph Weigand, who bred a few cultivars for us. He might have marketed his roses exclusively through us too. That’s the problem with five generations: unfortunately, you don’t know enough about the first ones. In fact, I’m doing my own research at the moment, because I want to write some reports for the rose museum here in Steinfurth. Up to my grandfather everything is quite verifiable. I know a lot about that generation because, of course, I know the people. But further back there is not so much one can find. You can obviously see what Heinrich Schultheis published, but there’s not much general information available.
GB: Do I understand correctly, from one of your previous comments about your ancestors, that you are the first Schultheis to start breeding?
CS: No, my father started breeding in the mid-80s, and he brought quite a few cultivars onto the market. I don’t necessarily have a favourite rose, even though I do prefer some because of their aroma and variety, but there ist always room for improvement! We need to keep developing, and I’m fully involved in this process, so hopefully, by the time I retire, I’ll be able to look back at an excellent breeding history. And I’m a real perfectionist in this.
It’s evident that the English rose is becoming less popular.
GB: What do you focus on in your breeding?
CS: Mainly on plant health and fragrance. We can’t really demand much else because, of course, we can’t foresee the rose of the future.
GB: What seems to be the next trend?
CS: It’s evident that the English rose is becoming less popular. But because it takes seven to eight years to breed a rose, the plants my breeding contemporaries are bringing onto the market are all part of that fading trend. Nobody is ready with tomorrow’s trend. Those need to be bred now, so they’ll be available in seven years. That’s why I venture into different directions. I have a few roses with open cups, some filled ones, as well as floribundas, shrub roses and climbing roses. When I find something that I like, I keep it and everything else I throw out.
GB: When I look at magazines or on forums, etc. I get the impression that natural shrub roses are becoming popular.
CS: Yes, there’s a lot of talk about them, but they’re not really selling. You do see them in many magazines and its a major topic when it comes to bee pastures – I also have a rose called ‘Bee Lovely’ – but generally, it’s not something customers like to buy. Of course, most of them like a well-filled and fragrant rose. Everything else is mere ‘side effects’. Other examples are the Persian roses with their violet eyes – the Hulthemia persica hybrids. I have two of these in our range, but this I also view as a relatively small trend that will probably not last.
GB: That sounds a lot like a random-walk hypothesis …
CS: Our customers make the decision. Perhaps Paris also plays a small part. When people ask me about the colour trend, I always say: “If the men are wearing pink shirts, then pink sells well, and if the women wear apricot, then that’s the colour. If the new cars on the market are white, then people will want white.” These fashions really have a significant influence.
GB: Did you always exclusively produce roses throughout the five generations?
CS: No. Our company has reinvented itself several times throughout this extended period. During the war, we produced vegetables. In my father’s time, there were 14 million roses in Steinfurth. That was too many and in response to that situation he did what no one else did. He then dealt mainly with nursery shrubs, although he did have a few roses too – but not as many and not exclusively. Around 30 years ago, purely for pleasure, my father started collecting a few antique roses We put them right at the back in the corner, but funnily enough customers always seemed to find their way to the back and fish them out. Now we have a great many modern as well as antique roses.
GB: Who are your customers?
CS: Private rose lovers and garden owners. We offer our customers a large selection, which they really appreciate. Steinfurth has focussed mainly on the wholesale market – large chains or nurseries – but we decided from quite early on – actually, right from the start of our business – to supply to private customers. Currently, about 80% of our customers are private.
There are, in fact, no rose gardens we haven’t supplied to.
GB: Renowned gardens such as the Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island, on the Havel river near Berlin) buy their roses from you. Are you, as a rose nursery, always aware of these famous parks that plant your roses?
CS: Yes, we are. We have been supplying Pfaueninsel and Sanssouci for decades. They are important customers to us. They have a problem with wild boars on the island and this has resulted in a steady demand for rose plants. They require specific varieties of standard roses. For historic reasons, the same variety and trunk height needs to be maintained. That’s why we keep a special range – with the historically correct Prussian trunk height of 110 cm – available all year round and the surplus later becomes available to our private customers.
GB: Do your customers know that these prestigious gardens use your roses? Is this a form of advertising for you?
CS: We’ve been selling roses throughout Germany for many years. There are, in fact, no rose gardens we haven’t supplied to. And usually you’ll see a sign showing where a rose comes from. On the island Mainau, for example, many of our roses can be seen in the larger gardens and at national and state garden shows.
GB: … in Dortmund (Home!!!) …
CS: Of course! In Westfalenpark in Dortmund.
GB: Do you ever visit these locations yourself?
CS: When I’m in the vicinity, I do. Ten years ago, I used to have much more time to drive around and photograph roses. Then, six years ago, after the arrival of my first child, it started becoming more difficult. I wrote my first book in 2003, and since I had none of my own pictures at that time, I had to make do with old slides to illustrate it. I felt there was too much criticism about the photos in the book, so I started taking many of my own pictures. As a result, I now have a digital image library of approximately 40 000 photos and I can select the best ones.
GB: While we’re on the theme of cameras, I’ve also seen some YouTube videos produced by Rosenhof Schultheis.
CS: (laughing) …. yes, oh God, that too. I would like to do that more often, but obviously, it takes a lot of time and I need professional help, which makes it expensive. But we will take this on, soon.
GB: One with, for example, Gartenheinrich?
CS: Yes, some of the applications might seem a bit difficult to some and when I read the advice customers gave each other on forums, I immediately made a video.
GB: …. and another video about how to winterproof, or bend your standards. I’ve never seen this before. We used to wrap them with pine brushwood, so the tall trunks ended up looking like little pine trees. So, you made a video for all potential owners of standard roses who’re afraid of frost.
CS: Yes, bending is indeed the best way to do this. But no-one feels confident enough. I had one standard that I used in demonstrations to my customers, but unfortunately, after two or three hundred times it did eventually break off. Customers somehow still think it will immediately break, but in truth, the trunk of a standard can handle this type of bending quite well. We must exploit this modern media, otherwise we’ll fall behind.
Pruning a rose bush is essential. In fact, there are only disadvantages in not doing it.
GB: Roses are regarded as sensitive, but I’ve replanted several roses with pathetically few roots and I’ve had no problems. In fact, I find roses to be very robust. Have I merely been fortunate with the varieties I’ve had, mainly old roses, or what exactly is the Achilles heel of the rose?
CS: Usually a rose can endure quite a lot. I also give some pruning courses and the participants are often shocked at first when they see a severe pruning. But they need to understand that you can’t destroy a rose by pruning it. Quite the opposite! Pruning a rose bush is essential. In fact, there are only disadvantages in not doing it. The choice of location is crucial for the rose. Not every rose grows equally well everywhere. Many people don’t think about this at all.
GB: And what exactly, would you say, is the winning formula for roses?
CS: Take care of them. One thing you should avoid is planting errors. To plant with fertiliser or compost can often cause the rose to quickly die. Another mistake is over-watering. Roses don’t like wet roots. This can rapidly lead to rot. The damage seems like that of dryness and could tempt you to water even more. Be enthusiastic and focused or actively engaged in your roses, instead of just observing them from the side-line.
GB: If you’re trying to prevent a fungal disease is the location the all-important factor?
CS: Yes, the location determines whether your rose will become susceptible to fungal disease. If, for example, you have a north-facing balcony, but you’re determined to have a fragrant red floribunda, you can already expect that it will become sick. A rose on a covered balcony will always get sick. It’s simply not a good location for roses, but it is a much-loved breeding ground for mildew and red spider mite. With parameters like these, it’s easy to predict what kind of disease the rose will or won’t get.
GB: Well, at this point I’d like to sing the praises of old roses – they are so easy to please…
CS: …. yes, except that they have a very short flowering period. You need to keep this in mind. They usually bloom for “only” about four weeks, but at least you have no stress, no problems in winter, very few diseases… well, maybe a few, but not many. You’ll always have more pros than cons with historic roses. But today people want everything. On the other hand, we’ve often had cases where a customer buys a large quantity of floribundas or bedding roses and takes an antique rose as well – either coincidentally or as a gift. And then at some point, they let us know that the variety in their garden has gradually changed. It started out as modern, and later everything gradually became historic, because, after every winter, a few modern roses had died and were replaced by old roses. So many gardens that start out demanding a lot of care and attention later became more low-maintenance.
Experts could not, even after twenty years of research, find out what causes soil fatigue with roses.
GB: Planting in the same spot and the resulting soil depletion remains a puzzling issue, doesn’t it?
CS: Experts could not, even after twenty years of research, find out what causes soil fatigue with roses. There are many theories, but the actual cause is still unknown – precisely because there could be different causes for every different Rosaceae. Nematodes are merely one example. Under certain conditions, when the soil contains many of these, one Rosaceae can flourish while others don’t. It seems to be very specific for each plant, but with a rose, we still don’t know enough about this issue. But what I know beyond a doubt is that any control measures applied to rid your plants of this pest will be a waste of time. The only solution is to replace your soil.
GB: And what about soil depletion on the fields where you plant your roses?
CS: We regularly rotate our fields. Cultivation always takes two years, after which I rotate. I try to lease new land and move onto different fields.
GB: And when can you use the land again?
CS: After about seven or eight years we can plant on it again. The problem is that there’s a lot of potato and maise production here in the Wetterau region, which also means many nematodes. I always try – and typically manage to succeed – to move onto a field that produced wheat the previous two years. We rotate our fields in a twenty-kilometre radius throughout the Wetterau region.
GB: Magazines often romantically portray ramblers climbing up old apple trees. Both are Rosaceae. Why are they not doomed to fail because of soil fatigue?
CS: Fundamentally you shouldn’t plant a rambler on a dying tree. Therefore, I wouldn’t plant a rambler in an old Apple tree. Once the rose has spread everywhere after ten years, it could, in fact, cause an ageing tree to fall over. If the tree still bears apples, then, of course, it would still be suitable. But I can set your mind at ease about soil fatigue. The apple tree causes a different kind of soil fatigue than the rose. It reacts to nematodes sooner. And the rambler’s roots go down so quickly that it rapidly grows through the zone with the nematodes.
GB: On what type of stock do you graft?
CS: On R. canina ‘laxa’.
GB: There are different stocks for different soils. Here in the Wetterau region, the soil is rather heavy and loamy. Will it be difficult to grow my rose if I’m a client from the north of Germany and I’ve ordered a Rose from here, grafted onto one of these stocks?
CS: Here in Southern Germany we use the Rosa canina ‘laxa’. In Northern Germany, almost all varieties are grafted onto Rosa canina ‘intermis’, which has a fine root structure. Once the plants have reached a certain thickness, it doesn’t matter whether you previously had an ‘intermis’ or a ‘laxa’. If you have any problems, it will probably only be during the first year, or if I grow a rose here that was grafted for sandy soil. Then a ‘laxa’ with thick roots would be much more tolerant and would have a better growth rate and subsequent growth pattern.
Pruning is always the most essential aspect of rose care.
GB: I must ask my obligatory question about climate change. What is busy changing in the world of Roses?
CS: We are certainly seeing a substantial impact of climate change, especially concerning diseases and pests. These pests will increase in the future, and it will become more difficult to control them with the few remaining legally approved pesticides. And as increasingly more bees are starting to die, we need to stop using the more effective pesticides, because we don’t only kill the pests, but also the creatures which benefit us.
GB: Have you encountered other problems during the changing climate of the last few years?
CS: When we propagate, we need a hot, dry summer. Only then do we see a good growth rate. But in the last few years, we’ve had cold, wet summers, so our growth rates are currently quite bad. So, we’re genuinely noticing the effect of climate change.
GB: How much do current cultivation practices, such as clean cutting, removing leaves from the flower beds and loosening the soil, help in this changing climate?
CS: A lot! It’s generally true that pruning always causes rejuvenation. Pruning is still the most essential aspect of rose care. If you neglect to do this, your plant will rapidly age. A rose plant that has become old produces fewer blooms, becomes more vulnerable and the old fungus-infested wood might stay on the plant. It also affects the general hygiene. Fungi decompose every leaf that falls and then start attacking the rose. But when the leaves are gone, the rose cannot become infected. That’s why, when you prune, you should also remove the foliage and wood. And lastly the most important thing: Avoid over-mulching your roses, because this will impede air circulation. Aerating the soil is crucial. Mulch suppresses not only weeds but also the plant because gas exchange is of utmost importance. On our farm, we also need to remove weeds. That’s why I’m in favour of experimenting with mulch. We mostly mulch with rocks. It works well with 2 cm lava rocks, which still allow air circulation. You can also use a thick pine mulch, which retains its stable structure for a long time. But forget about using anything fine, and I would stay away from the packets of rose mulch you find in the supermarket.
GB: So, does this mean you shouldn’t underplant, either?
CS: Yes, because the competition usually creates difficulties. If I add a shrub, it will usually win. That’s why, for the welfare of the roses, accompanying shrubs should be planted a respectful distance away from them.
GB: If I’m fortunate to have a healthy rose, can I leave its foliage on in winter?
CS: You would think so, but the problems pop up when new foliage starts forming the following year. New shoots will develop from old foliage and then the old foliage will weaken and could become diseased. The plant could suddenly get a fungal disease which you cannot get rid of. We’ve had plants that looked great throughout winter, and then in May, when their buds started forming, they were suddenly sick. That’s why we now remove the foliage from all our roses no later than March.
Catmint and lavender don’t repel any lice, just as crown imperials don’t keep away voles, although many may trust in these methods.
GB: Do plant communities play a role in the health of roses? Because, contrary to popular belief, Lavender is certainly not good…
CS: Indeed. Some combinations merely look good. If you plant roses in a perennial planting, the perennials merely act as spacers between the roses, which can be an advantage. But there is, in fact, no single plant that will benefit the rose if you plant them together. Catmint and lavender don’t repel any lice, just as crown imperials don’t keep away voles, although many may trust in these methods.
GB: Mr Schultheis, do you have any last words on roses for us?
CS: To end off I would like to say: As a lover of roses you can expect two out of three things from a rose plant. No more, because this is all that can be achieved in their breeding. A rose that is healthy and fragrant blooms less frequently. If the plant blooms frequently and is healthy, then it won’t be fragrant. The ones that bloom often and smell nice, usually have a very unattractive growth. I personally like the ‘Rose de Resht’ and ‘Jaques Cartier’, because of their fragrance and robustness. But, for many beginners, roses are what they represent in a bouquet. But, if you’re open to the many available cultivars, you’ll be able to find your ideal rose, whether you want one that demands a lot of care or one that is low-maintenance.
GB: Thank you so much, Mr Schultheis, for allowing us a glimpse into your line of work.
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