The Catholic Digest 2(12): 20-23 (1938)
The Rose Wizard
Frederick M. Lynk, S.V.D.

Dozens of times I had seen pictures of this strange priest scientist of the West amid his roses and had read about his wonderful achievements. I had requested him to send me enough about his life and work for a write-up. I received a refusal. I wrote again, but with the same result. I made up my mind that, if I should ever go to the Golden West, I would brave the old lion in his den. The opportunity came quite unexpectedly, and one fine day in late April I found myself in Santa Barbara.

I knocked at his door and in a moment was face to face with a little old man, dressed like a workingman, in shirt sleeves, but with an ancient celluloid Roman collar and a moss-colored "rabbi" of equal antiquity. "Father Schoener?" I said hesitatingly. "Why, yes, sit down!" While introducing myself I told him right out that I had come to get enough material for an article about him and his roses. He assured me he was not looking for any magazine publicity; all he wanted was scientific recognition for his work. I assured him that he had plenty of that, but that the plain people were more interested in him personally than he realized. I noticed with delight that he was growing more eager to talk, and by and by I persuaded him to loan me several of his photographs and other material. He is 75 years old, but he looks no more than 60. His eyes are keen, his face ruddy and his gait reveals good health.

The room contained a piano, a fine statue of St. George on horseback killing the dragon and a miniature statue of the Madonna della Sedia in plaster paris, both made by him. The piano top, table and chairs and part of the floor were covered with papers, magazines, books—a typical bachelor apartment. Evidently there was no housekeeper. The bed was unmade, as I happened to see when he went to get his coat. There were stacks of letters, some unopened, from all parts of the world. He took great pride in mentioning all the people and societies who wrote to him, and showed me the membership certificates in numerous scientific organizations, prize awards, etc. Although born in America, he was taken back as a child to his native soil. He speaks English with a quaint foreign accent and interesting little twists; among these I took special note of the typical German "what." "You like that, what?" Every so often he broke into German, French, Italian or Spanish, and when he noticed that I knew something about all these languages, he was visibly delighted.

He is engaged on a translation of the Divine Comedy into German and a rhymed autobiography in the same language, from which he read a few pages to me. If he ever finishes it, he hopes somebody will publish it after his death. He is a universal genius, a painter, a sculptor, a musician, essayist, poet, and above all, a plant scientist. He showed me a picture of himself in a doctor's gown — he got his Ph.D. half a century ago in Eichstaedt, Germany.

By and by I had collected enough material, but twice he tried to take it away from me. I told him I would not travel 2,500 miles to see him and then go away empty handed. I wanted my candid camera picture of him and his roses, and I got it. When I inquired about his garden, he said it was a block away. He picked up a box of rose seeds and we walked down the street. The garden, despite the early season, was a riot of roses, though he said in a few weeks it would be "overwhelming." I saw his famous "Avenida de las rosas" in the middle of the garden, the bushes, or rather trees, being more than 20 feet high. He asked me to estimate how many varieties of roses he had in his garden. I told him I had not the slightest idea, but if I should venture a guess I should say at least 50. He laughed loud and chuckled for 10 minutes afterward, telling me over and over again, "Fifty varieties, eh? Itís 2,600." I was glad I had mentioned such a low number. Quite frequently while pointing out a two-colored specimen, such as red inside and yellow outside, or one with particularly exquisite petals, deep red, delicate pink and one black, and noticing my delighted surprise, he would say, "Never saw a rose like that, what?" and I always hastened to assure him that I never did, which was the absolute truth.

"They say I am a rose-crank," he said. "I am not, my work is not guesswork, like Burbank's, but planned on scientific knowledge. I do not mate roses by chance and watch what will happen, I know what will happen." He has studied 5,000 varieties of roses. A blue rose was stolen and the species died out. "Lost to the thief and lost to me," he muttered sadly. It was the only one he had.

I was very anxious to see a sample of his rose apple, or edible rose. Twenty of these had been stolen, too, but he found one of a smaller size, opened the fruit with my pocket knife and showed me how closely the structure resembles that of an apple, outside and inside, core and all. "The natives of Burma subsist on it," he said, when I asked him whether one could really eat them; "but," he continued, "the rosa pomifera does not taste like an apple, but like a rose." Rose and apple, as he pointed out, evidently are of the same broad botanic family. By hybridizing rosa pomifera with a Spitzenberg apple, he obtained a better-sized fruit than that of rosa pomifera. It had a decided apple character and delicious flavor. It took years of cross-fertilization to produce a plant, which not only blooms like a beautiful rose, but when the petals are gone develops into an edible fruit. "And here is another deux couleurs" he smiled, pointing out another rose with two colors. He picked leaves, not petals, from five different bushes and asked me to smell them. I noticed the fragrance, but could not tell the difference. "You must have a nose for that," he explained. He showed me a rose plant that stretched 25 feet, climbing up and down a tree and bearing roses all the way.

The rose wizard is an expert in the Mendelian laws, and, like the famous Austrian Abbot, he experimented with peas in his parish garden at Brooks in the State of Washington, where for many years he was the pastor of a small flock of Indians and half-breeds. A full-blooded Silez Indian was his first helper. Leaving his parish in Pennsylvania, he had come out West in search of health and evidently found it, but he found more: beauty, truth, fame, but not money! A devastating fire in 1915 wiped out most of the fruits of some 20 years of his previous experiments, his records, his library, his paintings.

When I said goodbye to the Padre of the Roses and watched him cross the street to return with a quart of milk — his dinner — I could not help feeling a bit melancholy despite the riot of beauty I had just admired. The padre is getting old; H.O.L.C. has foreclosed on him (so I was told); certainly he seemed to be very poor. Like every other dreamer, he envisions a plan that would make the spot a shrine to all lovers of roses. He showed me the plan: miles of rose walks, laid out like a rose, roses of every shape, color and size, with a rose building in the center, a rose bowl for music, a perpetual fiesta of roses. His old eyes gleamed when he spoke of it.

In vegetables he has produced a mammoth sugar pea with an edible pod seven inches long and an inch and a half broad. The yield of this pea is enormous, more than tripling the ordinary crop of peas. He succeeded in producing this new vegetable with a cross between a Lima and a wax bean, also with an edible pod of unusual size and quality. This very combination was tried for years in this country and in Europe by the foremost hybridizers, who invariably failed in their experiments. Through special chemical treatments, known to Father Schoener alone, he succeeded where others failed. This grand new variety of vegetable alone would assure him a front rank among the plant breeders of the world. He produced an almost stoneless cherry, which will become of the greatest importance for canneries, and a cherry that ripens in September, prolonging the cherry season over two months. In his experiments with cherries he went still further, and crossed them with the Italian prune for the purpose of getting a new delicious fruit that can be dried like a prune. He produced a new apple with color and flavor of an orange. As the flesh of this apple is of exceptional firmness, it will be an excellent shipper and keeper. Finding a natural hybrid of an Oregon blackberry with a large double flower, he crossed it with the Cuthbert raspberry and got a most wonderful hybrid: a double-flowering hybrid raspberry with a fruit of enormous size and a peculiar vanilla flavor.

The rose wizard, who is also musician, artist, poet and essayist, has never forgotten that he is a priest, and that completes the astounding "inflorescence" of his long life.

Schoener Bibliography