Wilhelm Pfitzer was 40 years of age in 1844, when he gave up his learned profession to open a nursery, in his own name, on parental property at Militärstraße, Stuttgart in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, EU. He founded a family firm that exists to this day and which has been a major influence on the development of many flower types, especially Dahlias, Gladioli, and Canna.
His son, Walter Pfitzer, soon joined the business and served an apprenticeship with his father, and then for a period of seven years, he worked for the famous Louis Van Houtte nursery in Ghent, Belgium, and others in Holland, France and northern Germany, acquiring a rich experience he was able to bring with him when he returned to the family business along with many specimens of exotic plants.
Through reliability and industry, the business acquired loyal buyers and market traders for their products. A first seed and bulb catalogue was published, thus increasing business. With his wife, Friedericke, née Schickler, he extended the nursery around the vegetable and flower seed trades.
During the 1860’s Pfitzer acquired Canna material from Herr Ehmann, also a Stuttgart nurseryman and for whom the much-favoured Canna ‘Ehmanni’ is named. That was the start of the serious involvement of the house of Pfitzer with the Canna genus.
By 1880, the breeding of gladioli in pure colours succeeded for the first time. The new cultivars were introduced on World Fairs. In the long list of the prizes and honours the most notable were Dahlias (230), Gladioli (650), Canna (270), Petunien (400), Geraniums (630), Verbenen (850) and Phlox (500), appearing in Canada, USA, London, Paris, Brussels, Petersburg, Moscow, Hamburg, Dortmund, Bonn, and others.
Paul, Anna & Rudolf Pfitzer in Stadt Fellbach
In 1909, the original property was sold for building as the city expanded and the company looked for new land outside Stuttgart. In 1910 they acquired 5 acres (20,000 m2) of rural land near the railway station at Fellbach, about six miles (10 km) outside Stuttgart. Paul Pfitzer, the eldest son of Walter and Friedericke and brother of Anna and Rudolf, took on the responsibility to construct the new nursery. Offices, warehouse, greenhouse, and nursery beds rapidly emerged.
The land at Fellbach proved to be suitable for the cultivation of tender garden varieties and the business prospered. Above all other lines, the Gladiolus business grew to be larger than the Dahlias, Roses, Phlox, Delphiniums, Begonias, Cannas, and flowering shrubs. The company grew all of these lines and bred new cultivars ceaselessly.
World War One
The First World War proven a major setback as valuable breeding material could no longer be obtained. Most of the workforce were conscripted, but later replaced by prisoners of war.
During the inflation years in Germany, 1923-1924 the firm was able to retain its entire workforce, due to their prudent management practices. When financial order was restored in Germany, the firm re-organised and opened new outlets in Göppingen, Ulm, and Heilbronn, selling not only seed and plants but also the latest horticultural equipment, fertilisers and fungicides. A department for bird and dog lines was added at the same time. The seed and bulb business was promoted through a coloured catalogue with images of their new cultivars.
Until his death in 1931, Walter Pfitzer was still in demand judging at international fairs, exhibitions, and shows, retaining his Presidency and Vice Presidency of the German and British Gladiolus Societies respectively, right until the end. His continual interest in Cannas meant a steady supply of new cultivars being produced each year.
In 1933, there were about 150 employees worldwide. That same year, in order to laud the elevation of Fellbach to the status of a city, the firm named one of its best seedlings that year as Canna ‘Stadt Fellbach’, meaning ‘City of Fellbach’. That is still a popular cultivar in this day and age.
Pfitzer’s Flower Show
Up to the Second World War thousands of visitors from all around the world descended annually on Fellbach to visit Pfitzer’s Flower Show. In addition, a multitude of young apprentices and sons of others in the trade enjoyed training at Fellbach, at what was recognised as one of the leading places of horticultural education in the world at that time.
Gladiolus were still the most important and largest department of the firm, but Canna still provided a steady supply of business as they continued to hybridise new cultivars.
World War Two
During World War II, most employees were conscripted and the nursery business had to be restricted and relocated. Vegetable type crops were ordered to be grown, regardless of the loss of valuable flowering stock. Head gardeners, too old for military service, had to contend with prisoners of war being billeted at Fellbach, and taught to grow vegetables. This was not onerous for the prisoners as it ensured that they ate much better than other prisoners of war did.
The attempts at saving flowering stock that was carried out directly against the law only met with limited success, and much stock was lost during that time. Much will never be recovered.
Sadly, many “Pfitzeraners” never returned and much knowledge and experience was lost. Some of the worlds leading hybridisers had been working at Fellbach before hostilities.
Post World Wars
After the war, the company was never able to regain its market share. Hostility to German goods existed for a while in both Europe and the USA, but more important, the neighbouring countries with favourable climates started to predominate. With their more favourable climate, they could produce in one year a harvest, or many harvests, that would take 2-3 years in Fellbach. In addition, the wage costs were more favourable to Mediterranean competitors.
The firm had to retrench, and wound-up leases on much of its land and reduced its work force. It focussed on just Dahlias, Gladiolus, and Canna. In order to publicise its products to potential customers, many of whom had never heard of the companies’ world-leading reputation, they involved themselves in numberless local and foreign gardening shows, fairs and exhibitions, competing successfully and with distinction. However, by the mid-1980s the firm had diminished in size to just six employees and 2 acres (8,100 m2) of garden beds.