In a college course in genetics, I learned about Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who, in seminal experiments with sweet peas, discovered the fundamental concepts of modern genetics.
In a book by Mike Mason, The Furniture of Heaven & Other Parables for Pilgrims, I discovered that Gregor had a younger brother, Johann, who also had a flair for botany and genetic research.
Writing playfully and at the same time seriously, Mason recounts a parable of the younger Mendel, also a monk, who dedicated his life to the precise and painstaking work of crossbreeding common plants.
One of Johann’s early attempts was a rose whose petals were transparent, almost colorless. The rose could hardly be seen. His colleagues laughed at a flower which, to them, seemed useless. But Johann had a special affection for this hybrid which he named “Rose of Poverty.”
Another experiment produced a flower Johann called the “Mourning Violet.” The blossoms were a blaze of color, but the plant would only grow when watered by tears. Other monks had little success with the plant, yet the window box by Johann’s room was always full of bright violet blooms.
The amateur botanist also developed a strain of lily-of-the-valley which thrived in arid and rocky soil where other plants wilted and died. This achievement passed unnoticed by the other monks. Perhaps because of this disregard, Johann named this plant “Meekness.”
One experiment resulted in a new variety of wheat which Johann called the “Wheat of Righteousness.” Bread made from this wheat was exceptionally tasty. But whenever the bread was served, the monks complained, “We’re just as hungry after eating the bread as we were before!”
In his cultivation of carnations, Johann produced one with a blossom of singular beauty. But it only bloomed on the darkest nights when it was all but impossible to see. One of the few who ever caught a glimpse of this blossom, Johann named it “Mercy.”
Like his brother, Johann also worked extensively with sweet peas. After years of crossbreeding, he developed a strain with a scent so subtle that it could barely be detected. Johann called this new variety “Purity.”
One experiment, which his fellow monks dismissed as impractical, produced a resilient kind of grape. The fibers of the vine could be braided into ropes of superior strength. But the young vines were unusually delicate, requiring hours of painstaking attention. Johann called this plant the “Peace Vine.”
In the evaluation of his fellow monks, only one of Johann’s projects had any value. It was a bush which grew as easily as a weed, spread rapidly, and provided abundant shade. To Johann’s chagrin, this new bush, which had sharp thorns and scraggly blossoms, soon filled the sanctuary courtyard.
After a lifetime of labor, Johann was buried beneath a clump of these disappointing bushes. He left behind acres of new hybrids in a carefully tended garden which he had named the “Garden of the Beatitudes.”
After he was gone, the garden was completely neglected. The majority of the monks could not appreciate plants with flowers and fruits which could only be seen, handled, or savored by a few odd eccentrics.
Yet, against all odds, the curious plants developed by this amateur botanist have endured through the years. Though rare, it is still possible for attentive observers to find the tender shoots and fragrant blossoms of these strange plants growing in the most unexpected places.
Now that I have learned about Johann Mendel’s genetic experiments, I hope that many among us will take up the work of cultivating these rare and fragile plants so that, once again, they may flourish in gardens like Johann’s (Song of Solomon 4:16; 2 Corinthians 2:14-16).