The Schenkel nursery is gone, but its root stock lives on.
Return of a Rose
"Laser," a variety of Schenkel rose
In 2004, when Michael Van Ness first surveyed nine abandoned, 100-year-old greenhouses in downtown Lynchburg, he was met by a wall of thorns—literally. Van Ness, an attorney, was looking for new digs for Lynchburg Grows—the urban farm organization he and Dereck Cunningham co-founded in 2003 to help the disadvantaged enjoy the healthy benefits of gardening. “We had these two acres of buildings,” Van Ness explains, “and in them we found close to 100,000 rose bushes which were 20 feet tall and growing through the rafters.”
The shuttered rose farm had been the site of the Schenkel nursery, which for nearly 50 years, starting in the early 1950s, had been one of the largest rose growers in Virginia. At its peak, the Schenkel nursery was producing 1.3 million roses a year, or about 23 percent of the state’s flower industry. Schenkel roses have graced the White House and adorned Kentucky Derby winners. But the business closed in 1999 following a dramatic fall in the wholesale price of roses caused by a sharp rise in South American rose imports.
When the Schenkel nursery shuttered its doors, the greenhouses fell into disrepair and the roses were left to fend for themselves.
That is, until Van Ness and Lynchburg Grows came along and purchased the farm from the Schenkel family. At the time, Van Ness estimated it would take more than nine years to clear the debris and rescue the roses. He was wrong. Today, after just five years (work began in 2005) and over 42,000 hours put in by more than 3,400 volunteers, Lynchburg Grows has cleared the last greenhouse and rescued 14 varieties of roses, the oldest—an heirloom English tea rose—dating to the 1820s.
On the first Saturday in May, at the Lynchburg Grows annual Family Fun Fair, the organization will be selling plants propagated from what Van Ness describes as this “hardy and vigorous root stock” for the first time. Nearly 900 one-year-old rose bushes will be available to purchase starting at around $20 each. Van Ness plans to have nearly 4,000 bushes ready to sell by spring of 2012.
“We want Virginians to be able to have a piece of this history,” says Van Ness, who left full-time legal practice in 2006 to run Lynchburg Grows as its Executive Director. “We will be devoting most of our greenhouses to this program.” He explains that they have kept more than 1,000 of the original “mother plants,” and says that the rose business will support the farm, which brings together at-risk youth and disabled youth to work and learn about sustainable food production. And, says Van Ness, “That’s what it’s all about.”