Dr. Rick Schoellhorn
Director of New Products
Even as an elementary schooler, Rick Schoellhorn had an eye for other people's plants.
"Geraniums, abutilons, fuchsias -- oh, there was an unlimited amount of stuff," he says, fondly recalling when he created his own garden in the backyard of his family's Long Beach, Calif., home by swiping cuttings from neighbors' gardens.
By the time he was 16, he had expanded his searches to a local nursery that refused his weekly request for a job. There, after being told "no" once again, he would regularly steal 2-inch potted plants by tucking them in his socks beneath his super-bell-bottom pants.
Eventually he got caught trying to drop a 10-inch pot of Polypodium aureum (rabbit's foot fern) over a fence for later recovery.
"I still love blue polypodiums," he declares.
Decades later, Schoellhorn, 49, no longer has to break the law to indulge his lust for new and interesting flora. For the past two years, he has been paid to rove the world as director of new products for Proven Winners, one of North America's leading brands of flowering plants.
That puts the Alachua resident in the latest generation of a centuries-long line of plant hunters whose roving eye and wanderlust brought to gardeners thousands of plants. These once-exotic newcomers now are garden staples.
Plant finders of old, such as Joseph Banks, Reginald Farrer and E.H. Wilson, whose names often are attached to the plants they found, used to haul their Wardian cases on years-long trips in the name of scientific discovery.
Schoellhorn cares about the science, too -- he has spent most of the past 18 years at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville teaching and doing research. But his travels for Proven Winners are almost exclusively for mercantile purposes.
A new variety of plant still can take the gardening world by storm and make millions of dollars for Proven Winners. It's Schoellhorn's job to investigate the best of what's new in breeding circles, as well as to keep a lookout for the odd "sport," as plant mutations are known, that might spring up in someone's backyard.
"Rick is the consummate plantsman. He's always looking for new plant material, and now he's got the perfect job," says former University of Florida colleague Tom Wichman.
Schoellhorn and Wichman, who coordinates Florida's Master Gardener program through the university, worked as advisers to the undergraduate horticulture club. "The students loved him. He's basically one of them," says Wichman.
"Affable, very ethical and very funny" is the way Proven Winners' colleague Marshall Dirks describes Schoellhorn, whom he met in 1995 as a grad student in Florida.
It seems Schoellhorn hasn't changed a lot from the long-haired, Birkenstock-wearing 18-year-old that Annie and Dan Joseph hired to work at the nursery they managed in San Luis Obispo more than 30 years ago. "He was so goofy, but yet so responsible," says Annie Joseph. "He was a real gem."
Small wonder, then, that his colleagues call him Dr. Dude and Dr. Fun. His personality serves him well during trips to Japan or Germany or the Netherlands, working out deals over dinner with plant breeders.
Schoellhorn is looking mainly for growers and hybridizers who might have bred a new color of diascia or a heat-tolerant delphinium or discovered a cool sport of an existing plant and propagated it.
He can make some quick guesstimates of a plant's marketability based on his 30 years' experience in the horticulture industry. He has done everything from running a nursery in Alaska (the weather sent him packing), operating a plantscaping business in Colorado (where he met wife, Linda, and where son Eran, 22, now lives) to overseeing statewide trials of ornamental plants in Florida.
The most promising plants are tried out at Proven Winners' various trial areas in the United States and overseas, and deals are struck.
One of those unofficial trial areas is in Schoellhorn's Alachua garden, where he recently planted 1,300 young plants from the Proven Winners' line.
The 3-acre site is home to a diverse range of plants, including tropical bulbs, like amorphophallus, and his beloved plectranthus -- anything, in fact, that catches this plant geek's eye.
Wichman says he loves visiting Schoellhorn. "He shares. I always bring my Ziploc bag and clippers."
Schoellhorn, a self-described Plectranthus freak, has his sights set on a trip to South Africa. He sees a lot of possibility in this genus of foliage plants, which are related to coleus, and South Africa is the home of most of them. He also wants to scope out what's new in agapanthus (commonly called lilies of the Nile).
"Agapanthus are exploding in South Africa," he reports happily.
Schoellhorn is excited by the emerging Supertunia Vista group of petunias, which he says have good heat resistance and offer gardeners an additional eight weeks of bloom -- right on through the dog days of summer -- over existing petunia types.
And for 2008?
"We have a great new cuphea called Totally Tempted, which is totally crimson with a very compact branch habit and is great in containers," Schoellhorn says.
He calls agastaches, with their scented foliage and wonderful arching flower spikes, "an amazing family," and says Proven Winners has two new ones coming out, one with pink flowers, the other with orchid blooms.
Proven Winners patents everything it releases. "A lot of people view patenting as a way of telling home gardeners they can't take cuttings," says Schoellhorn, a notion he rejects. "The law is designed to protect the patent holders from people who would grow 10,000 of something," he says, not folks who share cuttings with their friends or neighbors.
"Patenting is simply a means of protecting the breeder's rights," Schoellhorn finishes, well aware of the irony in his role of policing PW's patent rights given his misspent youth.
He laughs. "Now I have to explain patent law."