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An American Passion Revealed

Ruth Rhees Library, University of Rochester
Beurre d’Aremberg pear; mid-nineteenth-century lithograph by the Amana Society, Iowa County, Iowa

Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden on the South Lawn of the White House merits a double brava!—apart from calling attention to the nutritional value of eating fresh, organically grown vegetables, it honors their global origins. We are not only a nation of immigrant peoples and cuisines. We are also a country of immigrant plants, trees, and vines. Mrs. Obama’s garden inevitably, if not intentionally, expresses that diversity, with its radishes, rhubarb, and spinach from Asia, its kale, broccoli, lettuce, and oregano from the Mediterranean, its fennel from India and Egypt, and its border marigolds from Mexico.

When European settlers first arrived in North America, they found an abundant garden. Blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries, which are planted about eight feet north of the White House vegetable patch, grew prolifically in the woods. The Indians gathered them from the wild, but they also cultivated corn and sweet potatoes, which had come from Latin America, as well as squash and beans, which they had bred from indigenous plants.

Plant improvement can result from advantageous mutations. It can also arise from sexual crossing, whereby the pollen from the stamens (the male sexual organ) in one plant penetrate the pistil (the female organ) in another, fertilizing it. Such crossing occurs all the time in nature, the pollen being carried by wind, insects, and birds. Like plant breeders since ancient times, the Indians improved their crops by selecting for reproduction the superior progeny produced by mutation or by natural pollination either within one plant variety or between two different varieties planted in proximity to each other. They were ignorant of the mechanism of sexual crossing, believing in cases of mixed varieties that the two somehow mingled their characters through the entanglements of their root systems.

No matter their misunderstanding: their breeding practices were effective. They planted the superior seed, selected superior plants from the next crop, and obtained improved varieties by repeating the process through successive generations. They introduced these varieties to the European newcomers, who were very glad to have them. In 1923, Lyman Carrier, an expert on the origins of American agriculture, noted that “no people anywhere in the world ever made greater strides in plant breeding than did the American Indians,” adding, “Our agriculture is at least one-third native American.”1

However, most of the rest, like almost all the plants in the White House garden, have come from elsewhere on the planet. From the first Spanish arrivals, European conquerors and settlers supplemented the native fruits and edible plants with basic food from the Old World and the southern half of the new one, including wheat, rye, barley, and oats; lettuce, onions, cabbage, and asparagus; eggplant, cucumber, okra, and beets; carrots and cauliflower; celery and parsley; parsnips, peas, and turnips. They also imported pasturage grasses, such as alfalfa, clover, timothy, and bluegrass, to feed their livestock, a type of husbandry that the Indians did not practice.

The colonists took a special interest in fruits, steadily supplementing the bitter-tasting wild crabapple and the few native varieties of plums with fruits from Europe, notably apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees. Farms commonly had an apple orchard, its produce pleasing to the palate and a convenient source of nourishment and sweetening that was preservable for many months in the form of cider. Grown from seeds and seedlings, a few trees yielded, by means of chance cross-pollinations by insects and other agents, particularly tasty fruits—for instance, the Jonathan apple, which was found on a farm in Kingston, New York, and made known by Jonathan Hasbrouck to a local judge, who returned the favor by naming the apple for him.2

Yet during the first years of the republic, the United States remained a colonial dependency, importing quality fruits, a condition that, as Philip Pauly reveals in his eye-opening Fruits and Plains, helped give rise to a drive for horticultural improvement that persisted into the twentieth century. It helped transform the nation as it stretched across the continent, contributing to the gorgeous abundance that the poet Katharine Lee Bates celebrated in “America the Beautiful,” the homage to which Pauly’s title alludes. Pauly, who died of cancer at the age of fifty-seven in 2008, was a prominent historian who studied the development of biology in the perspective of American culture and politics.

Like his previous works, Fruits and Plains is skilled, authoritative, insightful, and original, a pioneering exploration of innovation in American horticulture and its relationship to the natural environment during the two centuries or so that preceded the recent emergence of agricultural biotechnology. It merits a prime place in the growing historical literature concerning the linked subjects of agricultural development, agribusiness, the environment, biological science, food, and globalization. It is a particularly valuable complement to the recent study by the economic historians Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, Creating Abundance, which convincingly argues that since the early nineteenth century biological innovation has been as important as mechanical invention in dramatically increasing the productivity and variety of American agriculture.3

Pauly brings to life a remarkable cast of characters—in the main gentlemanly and middle-class amateurs, commercial nurserymen, scientists, and government officials. Some, like Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Law Olmsted, are familiar figures, but most, like the Boston plant breeder and nurseryman Charles M. Hovey or the crusading entomologist Charles Marlatt, are not. They were a knowledgeable, hard-headed, and practical lot, in many ways visionary, passionate about trees as such, as well as fruits, and concerned with lawn, pasture, and range grasses. Pauly relegates to “populist folklore” the importance of untutored plantsmen such as John Chapman or Luther Burbank, calling celebrations of them “seriously misleading,” in view of the skills required for the development of American horticulture.

He is right about Chapman, whose elevation to mythic hero as Johnny Appleseed may be merited by the mystic and selfless nature of his character but not by the consequence of his plantings. Apple trees grown from seed yield qualitatively poor fruit, usually good for cider but not for eating, while trees grown from cuttings of trees bearing quality fruit will produce fruit of comparable merit. But he is too hard on Burbank, whose plant-breeding methods were mysterious but who devised a number of delectable new fruits—for example, the Golden Plum, the Flaming Gold Nectarine, the Black Giant Cherry—and was a successful businessman.4

The drive for horticultural improvement was of course associated with an eagerness to promote economic development. At the outset, horticulture was centered in the northeastern United States, where new lands for cultivation were in short supply and those that were under cultivation were suffering increasing soil depletion. Crop rotation and manure were widely touted as the remedy for the latter, but a strategy of using more productive and higher-quality fruits (as well as animals and other plants) was advanced as a means to use the land more efficiently.5 The improvers were also driven by national pride. Their dependency on foreign fruits rankled, and so did claims by European scientists that plants and animals degenerated in the American environment.

A major element in the strategy of improvement was to find and develop valuable indigenous plants. Among the first successes was Hovey’s Seedling Strawberry, a newcomer for the garden that Charles Hovey, soon America’s leading horticulturist, bred in the mid-1830s. The woods contained tasty wild strawberries, but they were difficult to grow in gardens, and luscious imports from England did not survive the northeastern winters. Hovey developed his strawberry by successively crossing several different varieties—fertilizing one variety with the pollen of another—then planting seed from promising plants. His Seedling Strawberry, which he plucked from the ultimate crop, produced large fruits with shining red flesh and delicious juice.

Pauly points out that horticulture, including plant improvement in the pre-Mendelian nineteenth century, was an important element in the history of American science, though it has largely been unrecognized as such because it was to a great extent “an art…not a science on the academic model.” Hovey’s Seedling Strawberry provides a case in point. The first purchasers of his vines found that they tended to produce few if any fruit. An explanation came from Nicholas Longworth, a lawyer who had accumulated a fortune in real estate in Cincinnati, Ohio, and, like a number of newly rich Americans in the Northeast, had turned to horticulture. Strawberries, he argued, were sexual plants—some male, others female. Hovey’s Seedling Strawberry was female. It would fruit only if it were grown together with a male variety whose pollen would fertilize it.

The issue of whether strawberry plants are sexually distinct had been an undercurrent in European botany for at least a century. Now Longworth’s claim precipitated a debate over what Pauly calls “the great strawberry question” that persisted among American horticulturists for some twenty years until it was eventually resolved in Longworth’s favor. (Longworth went on to greater triumphs, producing the first widely appealing wine—Catawba sparkling wine—made from a native grape and a great-grandson who would become speaker of the House of Representatives and marry Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice.)

Pauly notes that American fruit breeders also debated which of two methods to employ for horticultural improvement. One, advanced by the English horticulturist Thomas Andrew Knight, called for hybridization across different varieties. The other, championed by the Belgian pear breeder J.B. Van Mons, stressed the repeated selection of seeds from specimens of the same variety that grew weakly but that produced soft-skinned and meltingly tasty fruit. Hybridization, however, was a laborious process, and in the mid-nineteenth century American horticulturists seemed, like the Indians, to rely on seed selection from promising varieties that were often the product of natural hybridization by birds and bees.

Ephraim Bull, a nurseryman in Concord, Massachusetts, produced the Concord grape by planting the seeds of a “volunteer”—a plant grown from a seed that had fallen naturally to the ground and germinated—that he found in the corner of his garden. Then after it fruited, in 1843—Bull guessed, plausibly, that the fruit resulted from fertilization by a Catawba grape—he planted the seeds from the fruit and used Van Mons’s rules to select the resulting vines for propagation. Bull’s new variety ripened two weeks earlier than the earliest grape then known and yielded large clusters of delicious fruit, good for the table and for wine. It created a sensation in the horticultural world after it was first exhibited at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1853.

Pauly stresses that for all the success of Hovey or Bull, one of the horticultural improvers’ principal strategies for eventually achieving American independence from Europe in fruit growing was continued importation and naturalization of promising new species to the American environment. Attempts to develop new fruit trees and vines were beyond the resources of all but a few horticulturists, and the process was risky. (Hovey estimated that “the chance of raising a very superior fruit may be considered as one to five hundred.”6:) Like English strawberry plants, arrivals from abroad often failed. New York, for example, might be on the same latitude as Rome, but imported fruit trees and vines fell victim to American soils, insects, and climates, including late spring and early autumn frosts as well as the torrid heat of summer. Thomas Jefferson attempted to develop orchards of diverse fruits, including especially European wine grapes, at Monticello and nearby Colle, thinking that the region resembled a fruit-rich area of Italy, but early spring frost did in most of the trees and the grapevines tended to die after two or three years.

  1. 1

    Lyman Carrier, The Beginnings of Agriculture in America (McGraw-Hill, 1923), p. 41.

  2. 2

    Andrew J. Downing, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America (Wiley and Putnam, 1845), p. 114.

  3. 3

    Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Other examples of this literature include Deborah Fitzgerald, The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890–1940 (Cornell University Press, 1990); Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr., First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492–2000 (second edition, Cambridge University Press, 2004); Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random House, 2001); Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 2002); Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History, edited by Susan R. Schrepfer and Philip Scranton (Routledge, 2004).

  4. 4

    Jane S. Smith, The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants (Penguin, 2009).

  5. 5

    On manure, see Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 2002).

  6. 6

    B. June Hutchinson, “A Taste for Horticulture,” Arnoldia, Vol. 40, No. 1 (January 1980), p. 40.

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