Markus Wullimann: Horticulture therapy gets a green thumbs up

Published 12:28 pm Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Markus Wullimann

Markus Wullimann

Written and photographed by Vincent Verrecchio

As a toddler, Markus Wullimann was dwarfed in the bright warmth and rows of his father’s greenhouse, about 50,000 square feet under glass at the foot of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. Markus had no names then for the geraniums and the many flowering ornamentals that were the family business going back to his great grandparents. In his mother’s flower shop, there was a richness of color and fragrance but he had no understanding of how and why. It was simply a good place to be.

Now after more than six decades, Markus, a registered horticultural therapist, reflects, “As a teenager, I can’t say I remember any particular passion for plants. Flowers were simply always part of who we were…who I was. We were a horticultural family growing for the Swiss market and flowers were our life. As the eldest son I accepted that I would carry on with the business.

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“There have been many chapters over the years. As one chapter ends, another begins, but in one way or another, they’ve all been about plants and growing.”

As Markus answered questions about those chapters, I thought that the growth he mentioned could be interpreted as more than the transformation from pollen to seed and flower. There seemed to be a pattern of pushing boundaries: not only the literal borders of geography from Switzerland to Atlanta, Kenya, and Columbus, N.C., but those of knowledge in breeding healthier plants; of accomplishments such as election as deputy of the Swiss canton of Valais; and of purpose, such as the application of his horticulture expertise to help psychiatric patients.

In 1979, an early chapter included a BA in horticulture from the Zurich University of Applied Science, knowledge that was put to quick use with the opening of a second family greenhouse further west in the Swiss Alps. During that time, the family business reached out and touched most of Western Europe with its own cuttings and as a licensed producer of internationally recognized clean stock geraniums from Oglevee Limited, near Pittsburgh, Pa.

“Europe was a tough competitive market…we had to have quality and got it the old fashioned way…no GMO…just slow careful breeding and cutting.”

“Old fashioned” plant breeding could be as old as 11,000 years ago when a pioneering horticulturist first cut the pollen-bearing stamens from different lines of flowers and then brushed the stamens of one line over the stigmas of another line. The receiving flowers became the seed parents. Today, the goal is still to join the best traits of different flower lines into one improved line. Seeds are harvested and planted after a year.

“It takes 20,000 to 30,000 crosses a year to come up with about seven new varieties.”

As Markus explained plant breeding, I could sense, even after his years in the business, that there was still a sense of amazement at the natural wonder of it. Once seeds germinate and the plants mature, cuttings can be made, a process with nuances at every step from cutting a shoot, planting it in properly prepared compost, fertilizing, and more. 

“From a successful crossing to production quantities takes three years,” he said.

In a subsequent chapter, Markus was recruited by Oglevee as general manager in Atlanta because of his business experience and fluency in German, French, and English. He remembers a culture shock for he and his wife and four children when moving from the valleys of Switzerland to the most populous city in Georgia; where one of his major responsibilities was far beyond the beltline.

“I was flying back and forth to a 55-hectare [5,920,151-square foot] greenhouse in Kenya. Part of my job was teaching 800 employees to grow millions of plants that could prosper in the cloudier European climates. We were making enough two-inch cuttings to fill a small truck for a daily drive to the airport.”

The next chapter began after resigning as Oglevee R&D director and moving to the more serene foothills of North Carolina. “I finally recognized, that over time, plants had become more of a passion than a business. I loved the nurturing, and came to believe that a seedling represents a more meaningful change than any I could have made as a business director in commercial flowers or as a Swiss politician…”

Today, he is putting the horticulture he loves to work in ways he would never have predicted from behind a corporate desk. With hands-on, he is growing organic produce in the 3,500-square foot greenhouse of Beneficial Foods Grocery on the Adawehi campus in Columbus and caring for the many flowering ornamentals on the grounds. He is also recognized by the AHTA (American Horticultural Therapy Association) as a registered horticultural therapist and has worked as an HTR with CooperRiis, a long-term residential program in Mill Spring for treating schizophrenia, PTSD, and other mental issues.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and “Father of American Psychiatry,” was first to document the therapeutic benefits of fieldwork in a farm setting. Acceptance of HT modalities expanded significantly with the many WWII veterans. In 1973, Clemson University offered the first HT graduate degree program.

“The AHTA is now worldwide. Response in Japan is especially enthusiastic,” says Markus.

At CooperRiis, Markus is currently facilities director with fond memories of having created the therapy gardens and working alongside patients.

“Garden design depends on the patient. An elderly patient with dementia typically responds to a gentle garden of softer shape, shade, and water. For PTSD, an option may be a working plot producing tomatoes with benchmarks of progress. If there is a sensory impairment, a garden may have highly fragrant or even stinky blooms and hairy leaves.

“I remember the survivor of a suicide attempt who had lost his business and family. Early on we were harvesting corn together and he complained, ‘I’m not paying all this money to pick your corn.’ Later, we sat shelling and chatting. He’s now back in business and recently confided, ‘shelling corn changed my life.’ I really liked hearing that.”

From the enthusiasm in Markus’ smile, I’d conclude that after all his years in so many places, he is in a good place to be. •