Karl Foerster's Lasting Imprint on the World of Horticulture

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 26, 2010

As a gardener--especially if you’re a fan of the wildly popular clumping grasses—you may be familiar with a grass called Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster,’ more commonly known as Feather Reed Grass. In 2001 it was even named the Perennial Plant of the Year by the U.S. Perennial Plant Association. But it’s not the plant that is the subject of this article. It’s the man.

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“Karl Foerster” is not exactly a household name among gardeners, but it should be.  I had always wondered who this man was and why there was a plant named in his honor.  So I donned my best garden-sleuthing hat and set about to find out.

Floral Herr Doktor Professor Foerster (Germans do love their titles!) was born in Berlin, Germany, on September 3, 1874.  His father, Wilhelm Foerster, was the renowned astronomer and director of the royal observatory in Berlin, and his mother was the well-known painter Ina Foerster.  In 1881, as a young lad of seven, Forester began a gardening apprenticeship in the city of Schwerin (about 125 miles northwest of Berlin), completing it successfully in 1891.

   Karl Foerster's Garden
          (Click on photos to enlarge) 
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                                                           © Marija Calden
Lush mixture of perennials, shrubs, and trees

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                                                           © Marija Calden
A play of sun and shadow on a main garden
walkway
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                                                           © Marija Calden
A good example of  Foerster's naturalism
;
note the use of grasses at far left and in
center
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                                                           © Marija Calden
Note the mixture of heights, habits and
textur
es
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                                                           © Marija Calden
Note trimmed hedge.  Foerster was not above
including a bit of formality in the mix. 

From 1892 until 1903 he attended the Gaertnerlehranstalt Wildpark bei Potsdam, an academy for professional gardeners.  He furthered his studies under the plant breeder and landscape architect Ludwig Winter in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera.  It was here that his passion grew for perennial plants in general and in particular for those that exhibited maximum beauty, resilience and endurance.

Returning to Berlin in 1903, he took over his parents’ nursery operation with the goal of simplifying a vast and, to his mind, somewhat chaotic assortment of plants offered for sale.  He retained those that met his beauty/resilience/endurance criteria and did away with the rest.  He also traveled widely in Europe to expand and enrich his gardening knowledge.  In 1910, he moved his nursery business to Potsdam-Bornim where he now resided.

Foerster married Eva Hildebrandt, a singer and pianist, in Potsdam in 1927.  His only child, Marianne, was born to the couple in 1931.

Always on the lookout for perennials that fit his criteria, and a stickler for excellence, he soon adopted as his own the motto, “Das Gute ist der Feind des Besseren:”  Being (merely) good is the enemy of becoming better.  He used it often.

His pursuit of excellence had a strong nature component to it.  He researched and bred perennials native to various areas of Europe, selecting those he considered the most garden-worthy and that fit his beauty/resilience/endurance criteria.  Even in his breeding program, he is said to have let nature take its course, never pollinating a flower by hand, but simply planting the two plants next to each other. 

From this breeding program came a number of clumping grasses (including Calamagrostis acutiflora), delphiniums, and ferns.  He also selected garden-worthy cultivars of other perennials, both native and foreign.  The use of grasses and native species strongly influenced a more recent movement in Europe, and especially in Germany, called “the new German garden style.“  (See my article, The New German Garden Style)  At least one of his delphinium crosses still survives today and is known, not surprisingly, as ‘Karl Foerster.’  Aside from its floriferous nature, it is notable for its very stout stems requiring no staking, beauty of flower, freedom from disease (especially powdery mildew), and reliable perenniality.  Also bearing his moniker, and still grown today, is one of his white roses.

Another very popular plant yet today, the ubiquitous Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii  ‘Goldsturm’, while not named after himself, was first named and propagated by Foerster at his nursery.

Foerster’s great influence on the German garden scene began while he was still alive.  Landscape architects Herta Hammerbacher and Hermann Mattern had rejected the stilted bedding style of the period and showed great interest in the naturalistic garden style developed by Foerster.  Together, the three of them founded a very popular garden design studio at Foerster’s nursery in Potsdam in 1928.

A prolific writer and speaker, Foerster’s popularity was also due to his lively lectures and his moving prose in books such as Vom Blütengarten der Zukuft (From the Flower Garden of the Future, 1917), Blauer Schatz der Gärten (Blue Treasures in Gardens, 1940), and Ferien vom Ach (A Vacation from Woe, 1962).  He also wrote many gardening articles, some of which were published in the journal Gartenschönheit (Garden Beauty), which he edited from 1920 until 1941.  Regretfully, none of these works, to my knowledge, has been translated into English.

Foerster was sympathetic to the plight of Jews during the Nazi era.  At great risk he employed many of his Jewish friends in his nursery operation.  He also resisted the Nazi demand to propagate and sell only “pure,” native German plants.  After the war, the Soviets took control of Foerster’s nursery.  Although he still was still employed there, the nursery was now managed under tight Soviet rule.  It was the only perennial supplier for all of East Germany.

For his contributions to horticulture and to literature, Foerster received many honors.  Among them are an honorary doctorate at Humboldt University in Berlin (1950), a professorship at the same university (1964), and honorary membership in the West Berlin Academy of Arts (1967).

At the venerable age of 96, Karl Foerster died in Potsdam-Bornim on November 27th, 1970.

         Ivy

  

Karl Foerster
                                         © Foerster Stauden
A venerable Foerster out for a stroll in his spring garden
 Young Karl Foerster with sister
                                              © Eva Foerster and Gerhard Rostin
 Foerster as a
young man with sister Hulda

Foerster with delphiniums

                                              © Eva Foerster and Gerhard Rostin
Foerster with his beloved dephiniums.  Note the stout stems that require no staking.

 

 

                                                                                                          

 

 

 

                                

Photo Credits

A heartfelt thank you goes to Marija Caldern, a free-lance photographer based in northern Italy, whose beautiful photos of the Karl Foerster garden grace this article.

Thanks as well to Foerster Stauden (Foerster's nursery) and to Eva Foerster and Gerhard Rostin, who co-wrote Foerster's biography,  Ein Garten der Erinnerung: Leben und Wirken von Karl Foerster—dem großen Garten-Poeten und Staudenzüchter, Ulmer Verlag, 2001.  Eva is Karl's wife (see above).

The photo at the top of the page is courtesy of Polish photographer Trawki.

Questions?  Comments?  Please use the form below.  I enjoy hearing from my readers!

© Larry Rettig 2010

Related articles:
gardening, German garden style, Karl Foerster, perennials

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Interesting and informative valleylynn Apr 27, 2010 11:50 PM 1
Great! Sharon Apr 26, 2010 10:51 AM 1

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