Popular Mechanics (Dec 1937) 818-821, 144A, 146A

Miracle Man of Roses

An ordinary little garden in Santa Barbara, Calif., is crowded with potentialities for tomorrow's science and realities in horticultural miracles. In it are roses which grow nowhere else on earth, roses with unbelievable colors and shapes, giants and dwarfs, roses with strange histories an stranger uses. The garden, which is one of the outposts in the struggle for scientific knowledge, represents the life work of Father George Schoener, a Catholic priest. Father Schoener says of his work, "The world is full of theories of how plants get their characteristic colors shapes and smells, of how those characteristics may be changed from generation to generation. It is the business of science to find out how things work, and to theorize afterwards."

Down the center of the garden runs a double row of rose trees. They tower thirty feet into the sky, as tall as a row of pine saplings. There is something unbelievable about them. Yet these giants of the rose family are not budded. They were grown from seed. A long history of careful breeding for a single characteristic, height, lies behind their gigantic size.

Close to the avenue of giant rose trees is an insignificant bush. It blooms irregularly, but when it does, the world sees a black rose. Only a tiny bit of dark red on the edge of some of the petals shows how it has been bred from crossing the very dark-red plants. Of the creation of this bud, Dr. Schoener says, "It is only logical to presume that if two very dark roses were crossed the next generation would contain a rose darker than either of the originals. Remember, that is only a theory. Science is not made of theories, but of facts. So I made my experiments, and eventually succeeded."

Near the black rose is a large and ordinary looking bush. It bears quite normal red roses. But when you come near the leaves of the plant you discover that the foliage gives off a scent. Crush the leaves in your fingers, and there arises an unbelievably strong smell resembling the Scotch sweet briar. There is good reason for this characteristic odor. It was from the Scotch sweet briar that the scent was bred into Dr. Schoener's red rose.

Climbing over the low fence which surrounds the garden is a rose with small oval leaves. This is far less stubborn than the black rose, and blooms regularly each spring. Its flowers are one primary color which roses never have—blue.

"It is simple," Dr. Schoener says. "After all, flowers must get their color from somewhere. There is only one place from which it can come—the ground. I once made an experiment. I impregnated the soil around a white rose with cobaltic acid. Within a few days the flowers of the plant were a rich cobalt blue.

"Now what occurs in an ordinary rose? The cells which give a rose its color have the ability to collect and hold chemicals which combine to form a color. The soil contains chemicals which will produce a blue color. It is only necessary to find roses which chance to have a small degree the power of secreting blue-producing chemicals—and then to intensify. I will show you what I mean by intensification."

In the center of the garden is a brilliant yellow rose. It has an intensity of color which makes the bright commercial yellow rose seem pale and washed out. All yellow roses fade when the petals fall—all but this one. Its fallen petals are as brilliant as they were when the bud first opened.

"I have intensified this rose," says Dr. Schoener, "by crossing many generations of the most brilliant yellow roses I could find. In this way I have made a yellow rose whose color has as much strength as that of a red rose. If I then cross yellow and red, what should be the result? Orange, of course. I am simply mixing colors.

And in Dr. Schoener's garden blooms a brilliant orange rose.

Following this line of reasoning, a combination of a red rose and an ordinary pale yellow one should produce brown. That is just what occurred. Dr. Schoener's brown rose has a deep rich color, slightly tending toward terra cotta.

In the same way that he intensified color, he intensified scent. He has produced a red rose with a scent so strong that in the early morning the odor can be detected a city block away.

Although the height of the giant rose trees satisfied Dr. Schoener that size can be controlled by breeding, he is toying with another "believe it or not rose." This is the smallest rose in the world, which he imported from Japan. Its tiny flowers are scarcely bigger than the eraser on a lead pencil, but they are true roses. Dr. Schoener plants to make some experiments of his own with the Japanese dwarf, with an eye toward producing even smaller blossoms.

Another experiment in intensifying a rose characteristic has produced gigantic blood-red thorns. It may seem that the ideal should be to breed thorns out of roses, rather than to increase their size. But under Dr. Schoener's touch even thorns have become things of beauty. These inch-long spines are translucent. Viewed with the sun behind them, they glow like rubies. But to go a step deeper, even the beauty of the thorns is not the reason for their culture. They are simply used as a medium for testing a theory of heredity.

Sometimes the theory does not work out—as in the case of a rose whose petals were white on one side and red on the other. They, according to Dr. Schoener, you "enlarge the theory to include the new facts."

In another experiment with combination of colors, he produced a bush bearing both white and yellow roses.

Although Dr. Schoener's interest is primarily with making illuminating experiments which later may be put to practical purpose, he has produced one rose which soon may increase the beauty of every back-yard rose garden. This is his perfect yellow rose. There is nothing new about perfect roses, roses whose petals form absolutely symmetrical flowers, but always before they have been bred in hothouses. This rose grew in a wind-swept garden. You can breed to perfection as well as to abnormality.

You can also breed to strength. In fact, this is the center of Dr. Schoener's theory of plant immunity.

"People come to me," he says, "asking how to treat this and that kind of plant disease. They ask about spraying and fumigating. They never think of fighting disease at its source by increasing the immunity of plants. I predict that the biology of the future will see a great advancement in the scientific breeding of plants to make them resistant to disease."

As proof of his theory, Dr. Schoener seldom sprays his roses. Even weeds are only kept under nominal control. There is no coddling of the roses in that half acre of ground that has contributed so much to our understanding of the hereditary factors in the development of better plants, or of stranger plants—even an edible rose. Yes, a rose blooms in this garden whose buds have a rich tangy flavor, a cross between an apple and something else. For it was from a variety of apple that this freak was bred. A Spitzenburg apple was crossed with a rose and the result is a strange new taste, half apple, and half the taste of a rose.

Recently Dr. Schoener has turned to dahlia culture and produced a whole set of minor miracles—a new orange dahlia, a giant dahlia, and dahlias whose blossoms remain bright and fresh long after ordinary dahlias have faded and their petals dropped.

And it all comes of one man's passion to "make your experiments—and then you will know." Is this man a scientist? We are apt to think of science as a vast collection of apparatus, of microscopes and electroscopes, of charts and diagrams, and voluminous reports. But in reality, science is a method. A scientist makes observations, offers explanations of the phenomena he observes, makes experiments to test his theories, and draws conclusions from his experiments—the simplest conclusions that will fit the facts. Viewed in that light, science has flourished for twenty years in that little garden in Santa Barbara. It has achieved results. Dr. Schoener's roses have been exhibited in a dozen countries. He has been presented medals by many horticultural associations.

But there is one more thing necessary to make a man a scientist—purpose. "I am not interested in roses or dahlias," Dr. Schoener says, "I am interested in discovering what can and what cannot be done in breeding plants. I make no final conclusions. I merely say that when I do such and such a thing there is such and such a result. And," with a wave of his hands toward his garden, "I have my proof that all men can see."


American Fruits 22(3): 77 (September, 1915)
The Portland, Oregon, Journal says that Rev. George Schoener, of Brooks, Ore., has produced a pea which is eaten pod and all, like a string bean; also a cross between "the wild plum and the wild apricot of Oregon," and "rose apple" resulting from a cross between a Spitzenberg apple and the wild rose of Oregon!

Schoener Bibliography