Happy Birthday, Karl Foerster! (And Giveaway Winner)

The ornamental Feather Reed Grass ‘Karl Foerster’ (Calamagrostis x acutifolia) is pretty well known, but what about the plant breeder and garden designer Karl Foerster, for whom the grass was named? March 9th just happens to be Karl Foerster’s birthday, so perhaps a little attention is called for. Though he died in 1970 at the age of 94, Foerster’s legacy lives on through the plants he developed and his influence on garden design.

karl foerster grass
Feather Reed Grass ‘Karl Foerster’. Photo from my.chicagobotanic.org.

Foerster was born in 1870 and in 1903 began his own nursery not far from Berlin, specializing in hardy perennials.

2014-09-01 17.35.11 black eyed susan
Black-Eyed Susan aka Orange Coneflower

Over the years, he successfully propagated about 370 perennial plants. Some are still in use today. He was a pioneer regarding ornamental grasses, and worked with North American perennials that were generally dismissed as weeds on this side of the Atlantic. His namesake grass began as a naturally occurring hybrid that Foerster found along a railroad track. He also propagated the Black-Eyed Susan Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’.

karl foerster 2

Delphiniums and Phlox were also among his favorite genera.

Foerster was a major influence on later garden designers like Piet Oudolf, Wolfgang Oehme, and James Van Sweden. Their emphasis on grasses, naturalistic design, low maintenance, and year-round interest owes much to Foerster.

‘Karl Foerster’ beautifully massed in the garden of Pat Webster, Glen Villa.

Foerster’s life was caught up in the tumult of 20th Century Europe. He defied the Nazi regime by employing Jews at his nursery. After the war, the nursery was located in East Germany. It was nationalized but remained under Foerster’s management for a number of years.

karl foerster person

In any case, it seems right and proper to take a moment to remember Karl Foerster – for his creativity and his love of plants.

On a totally different front, I want to announce the giveaway winner for Andrea Jones’ The Garden Photography Workshop: Nell. Congratulations, Nell! Please provide me with a delivery address by writing to jasonbertkay@gmail.com.

I know I said I’d give away a book every week, but I’ve decided to do it every other week. So next week we’ll be giving away Succulents: The Ultimate Guide to Choosing, Designing, and Growing 200 Easy-Care Plants, by Robin Stockwell.

That’s all for now.

36 Comments on “Happy Birthday, Karl Foerster! (And Giveaway Winner)”

  1. Great post–I learned a lot about Karl Foerster. Sounds like he was a decent human being. Interesting, the point about our native grasses being more valued by folks overseas, but that seems to be how things used to work. It’s encouraging that gardeners and homeowners are beginning to realize the importance of incorporating native plants.

  2. When you think how formal & stylised gardens were in Karl Foerster’s lifetime … He was very advanced in his thinking. I always enjoying reading about people with passion & creativity, and he sounds pretty special in all ways, employing Jews in his nursery.. at that time.. Brave & defiant! Happy birthday Karl!

  3. What a surprise it was to read your post and come across a photo from my garden! Love that kind of surprise, Jason.

    I had no idea that Foerster had developed Goldsturm. I planted it along with the calamagrostis, not knowing the connection. Do you think that old relationship is why they are both thriving at the Skating Pond? (Or could it just be the right growing conditions…)

    It’s good of you to recognize the person behind the plants. Foerster was a big influence in his time, and his influence continues.

  4. How interesting! I have a couple ‘Karl Foerester’ grasses in my garden, and it’s great to read about the man behind it. It sounds like he was a great person, too. I like how he was able to see the potential in plants that others thought of as weeds.

  5. Great post. I too have Calamagrostis x acutifolia ‘ Karl Foerster’ in my garden and uncharacteristically did not bother to learn more about him.

    When I started my blog some years ago I loved to include stories of individuals I learned about simply from the species and cultivar names of plants I loved. If your readers like this wonderful piece on Foerster some might enjoy reading about Henry Duncan McLaren, the second Baron of Aberconway. Plenty of history and 20th century “tumult” too:


    McLaren is the plantsman credited for the Rhodendron cilipinense hybrid. This British aristocrat, industrialist and politician is responsible for both this stunning little beauty of a plant and a magnificent public garden in the north of Wales.

    Also, use the Plant Index menu to find posts about :

    Frank Tweedy (Lewisia Tweedyi)
    Stanley Kunitz (Poet & Plantsman)
    Elizabeth C. Miller
    Steve Antonow

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