Esther Geldenhuys and SA's Mr Roses, Ludwig Taschner, celebrate her international honour from the American Rose Society in 2002.
Esther Geldenhuys and SA's Mr Roses, Ludwig Taschner, celebrate her international honour from the American Rose Society in 2002.
The pink hybrid tea Esther Geldenhuys
The pink hybrid tea Esther Geldenhuys

Cape Town - Passionate rose grower Esther Geldenhuys died recently. She was 88.

An English teacher by training and a qualified international rose judge, Geldenhuys founded 10 regional rose societies across South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s.

She was the wife of Afrikaner cattle stud breeder Attie Geldenhuys, and more famously, the mother of Springbok rugby player Burger Geldenhuys.

In 1979, she organised and hosted the 1979 World Rose Show in SA and in 1994, Struik Publishers launched her now classic book, Roses: All you need to know about roses in Southern Africa.

Having served two terms as president of the Rose Societies of SA (Rosa), she was made an honorary life president. This was followed by a term as vice-president of the World Rose Society and in 2002 the American Rose Society honoured her by admitting her to the American Rose Hall of Fame as an international rose legend.

Rose grower Ludwig Taschner met Geldenhuys in 1964, and over the years gave her several unnamed roses to try in her park-like garden on the family farm Randfontein in the Kroonstad district. In an area of warm summers and freezing winters, Geldenhuys’s garden was planted up with 3 000 roses that thrived in the northern Free State.

Cape rose grower Duncan Henderson said at the time: “Esther’s magnificent garden is a unique and enchanting testimony to her sheer dedication to the art of growing roses.”

Out of all the roses tried in her garden, she singled out a pink hybrid tea rose that she recognised as a strong, beautifully scented flower. In 1987 this rose was named in her honour, and it is estimated that 30 000 Esther Geldenhuys rose bushes have been planted in gardens across SA in the 25 years since its release.

“The Esther Geldenhuys rose has a classic, very high sharply-pointed flower shape, a good coral pink colour and incredibly firm petals that just will not wilt or droop in the hot sun,” says Taschner.

“The plant grows vigorously and produces an abundance of long-lasting blooms for the home.”

From an international breeding perspective, the pink Ester Geldenhuys hybrid tea rose turned out to be such a successful warm climate rose that its buds were used in the propagation of many roses, including the “Madiba” rose, which was named to honour Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s.

Buds from Esther Geldenhuys roses in Kroonstad were also taken to Kordes Roses in Germany and the rose continues to be sold in the US today under the name Esther Geldenhuys.

Geldenhuys advised that roses in the Western Cape were best pruned in the last week of July or the first week of August, but was philosophical about the level of pruning.

“Pruning depends on what you expect from your roses,” she always said. “If you want quality flowers and a longer life for your rose bushes, you should prune severely. If you want a profusion of flowers from the beginning of the season, you could keep more and longer stems. The flowers, though plentiful, will be smaller and the bush will produce less new growth.”

In Geldenhuys’s era, a traditional severe pruning was to knee height (about 50cm in height). The concept of severe pruning was to be endorsed by Highveld rose experts at the time, but Western Cape rose legends Henderson and the late Herbie Nash quickly stepped in to advise local gardeners never to prune roses severely in Cape Town. All agreed that in our winter rainfall climate, roses should never be cut to below 75cm or even 1m.

In her book Geldenhuys acknowledged the latest trend in Europe that promoted pruning roses with a hedge trimmer.

Although she didn’t agree with the practice, she did believe that any pruning was better than no pruning at all.

Pruning experience led Geldenhuys to caution gardeners on exceptions to the rule. “Some roses, such as the floribundas, Iceberg and Margaret Merril or the hybrid teas, Pascali, Colorama and Peace do not make new shoots from the base, so the existing framework should be retained,” she advised.

“Only dead and diseased wood or the very thin twiggy growth at the top should be removed.”

Her basic rule was that the taller and stronger roses grew, the less you pruned.

A harsh pruning back of varieties such as Christian Dior, Montezuma, King’s Ransom, Papa Meilland, Queen Elizabeth and Bride’s Dream can cause such severe damage that that they often fail to flower the next season.

Geldenhuys lectured to groups across SA and believed that post-pruning care needed more attention than pruning.

“After pruning, spray roses thoroughly with lime sulphur to kill any fungus or disease that remains on the bush after winter dormancy. Use one part of lime sulphur to 14 parts water. Sprinkle 80g of flowers of sulphur per square metre over soil around each bush to acidify the soil.

“Also add 80g of 3:2:1 (28) or rose granules in as a general fertiliser, one teaspoon of Epsom salts and 50g of bonemeal to each bush. Dig this fertiliser in (and any mulch left over from the previous season) to a depth of 15cm to aerate the soil. This is the only time any cultivation around roses is allowed.”

Ahead of her time, Geldenhuys was also passionate about mulch. Protect the fine hair-roots of the rose from sunburn by spreading a 10cm-thick mulch of coarse compost, pine needles, milled pine bark, thatch or veld grass. Avoid lawn clippings as they tend to form an impenetrable thatch.

Water your roses deeply to a depth of at least 40cm. Satisfactory penetration of water can be checked by digging a hole, but if your drainage is good you cannot overwater roses.

“Remember that more roses die from a combination of too much fertiliser and too little water than any other cause,” Geldenhuys wrote. - Weekend Argus