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An American Passion Revealed

LuEsther T. Mertz Library/New York Botanical Garden
Amicua melon; aquatint engraving by George Brookshaw from Pomona Britannica (1817), in the New York Botanical Garden’s recent exhibition ‘Ex Libris: Treasures from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library’

Plant importations were the product of both private and public efforts. Jefferson remained an avid importer, writing in 1800: “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add an [sic] useful plant to its culture.” In Massachusetts, well-to-do amateurs obtained fruit trees and vines from nurseries and fanciers in England and France, and cultivated them in their orchards and estates. The private improvers pursued horticulture in a spirit of noblesse oblige, circulating buds and scions for propagation by gift and exchange. (Neither plants nor animals could be patented at the time.7:)

In 1829, they founded the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, modeled on its counterpart in London, which promoted its purposes in the region by offering prizes for fine fruits displayed at its exhibits and afterward toasting the glories of horticulture in lengthy and bibulous banquets. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the task of private importation was falling increasingly to commercial nurserymen, members of a rapidly growing industry, who bought seeds, cuttings, and plants by the hundreds from their counterparts in Europe and, as Pauly observes, sold what they imported throughout the country.

The first significant federal effort to import plants originated in the late 1830s in the Patent Office at the initiative of Henry Ellsworth, a son of the second chief justice of the United States. He persuaded Congress to establish an agricultural division in the office (it evolved by 1862 into the Department of Agriculture, or the USDA) and authorized it to seek new plants from abroad. The Patent Office was of course devoted to securing monopoly rights for inventors. Pauly notes that Ellsworth made its activities more palatable to Jacksonian opponents of monopoly, providing imported plants and seeds to members of Congress for testing by distribution to their constituents.

Federal plant importation as well as seed distribution, both located in the Department of Agriculture after 1862, had their ups and downs through the rest of the nineteenth century. Importation thrived when the United States, having acquired western lands from Mexico, sought plants that would do well in an arid environment. Seed distribution lagged when Cleveland Democrats waged war against government extravagances. Along the way, the Department of Agriculture established an experimental garden with greenhouses on the eastern end of the Mall, where it tested imported plants.

Following the Republican victory in 1896 and the Spanish-American War two years later, the government—in keeping with the country’s drive for new markets, new territories, and new resources—embarked on a long-term program to acquire economically advantageous new plants. The prime mover in this agricultural expansiveness was Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, a successful Iowa politico and, with Henry Wallace, whose son and grandson would also serve in the office, an advocate of agricultural science and modernization. He established a systematic program to seek out plants and seeds from around the world and to test and distribute them in the United States.

The program was headed by David Fairchild, the son of a Kansas abolitionist and president of the state agriculture college. During the 1890s, Fairchild was taken under the wing of Barbour Lathrop, then forty-five, “who had,” Pauly writes, “diffuse interests in agriculture and well-formed young men.” With the vague aim of searching for new plants, Lathrop took him on a tour of the Pacific region in 1896 and of South America in 1899. Fairchild’s friendship with Lathrop transformed him “into a self-confident cosmopolitan,” Pauly notes, and his marriage in 1905 to one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters provided him with cachet and connections that served him well in Washington’s agricultural politics.

In 1909, Fairchild proposed that a Japanese “field of cherries” be planted along the Tidal Basin, which was then under construction south of the Washington Monument. The planting took place not long after the conclusion of the so-called Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, whereby Japan would limit emigration of its working-class nationals to Hawaii and the mainland. The initiative won President Taft’s approval as a gesture of friendship to the Japanese. Pauly observes that “a field of Japanese flowering cherries in Washington was preferable to a settlement of Japanese working families in California.”

Fairchild’s program was in part the product of a shift in plant importation away from Europe and to Asia that had begun during the 1890s. The change had been prompted by word from scientists who had gone to Japan to assist the Meiji modernization that Japanese plants might well flourish in the eastern United States. Fairchild’s principal agent in the Far East was Frank Meyer, an immigrant Dutch gardener whom he hired in 1906. A resilient traveler, competent botanist, hardheaded nurseryman, and skilled deal-maker, Meyer collected plants in China and southern Russia and sent hundreds home. His efforts ended abruptly in 1918 when he drowned in the upper Yangtze River, having fallen, jumped, or been pushed at night from the riverboat on which he was traveling.

Fruits and Plains is an episodic book, but running subtly through it is a reading of “culture” in the American horticultural enterprise as a critique of academic cultural theory, with which Pauly is impatient. He finds that his horticulturists were pragmatists for whom “culture” had multiple meanings. The term referred to the tasks of cultivation—for example, the hard work of planting, hand weeding, and spreading well-rotted manure—that were required to raise fruit trees and vines. It also conveyed a moral purpose, the expectation that the production of exquisite fruits, gorgeous camellias, and velvet greenswards would “lead to higher culture—to the refinement of public taste.”

Culture, in Pauly’s sense, also reflected the tensions in the United States between nativism and cosmopolitanism, between naturalized and alien. The tensions were as palpable in divisions over the importation of plants as they were in conflicts over human immigration. Importation posed not only a cultural but a material threat—the penetration of the nation’s borders by pests that often accompanied the foreign plants. As Pauly writes, the exclusion, suppression, and elimination of destructive agents were essential to the strategy of horticultural independence.

The tensions emerged early in the nation’s history with the arrival of the wheat pest now known scientifically as the gall midge, brought over in British imports of grass from continental Europe to the New York region during the Revolutionary War. By 1786, the midge was destroying wheat and gaining notice. George Morgan, a prominent farmer near Philadelphia, had watched Hessian troops savage the region during the war. Together with a friend he dubbed the midge the “Hessian Fly” even though it had no connection to Hesse. He was eager, as he put it, to express “our Sentiments of the two Animals”—the Hessians and the flies—and “to add, if possible, to the detestation in which the human Insect was generally held by our yeomanry.” The prominent British naturalist Joseph Banks worried that wheat from the United States might bring an infestation to Britain, and successfully urged the Privy Council in 1788 to ban imports of the grain. The next year he justified this order in a report that Jefferson said was a “libel on our wheat.”

Pauly’s account of the dispute, drawing on hitherto unexamined documents from the principals, shows how from the nation’s first years Americans were inclined to perceive threatening pests as “foreign invaders” and to interpret in local terms problems that were global, arising from the movement of people, plants, and insects. Americans were continuously anxious about their future political, economic, intellectual, and botanic independence.

Pests of both foreign and domestic origin continued to threaten American agriculture, but the number of invaders from abroad increased from the late nineteenth century along with the rise in global steamship travel and the expansion of the sources of plant imports. States felt threatened not only by foreign pests but also by those that spread through interstate commerce, which after 1898 included bugs from newly annexed Hawaii. In 1881, California, with its rapidly burgeoning fruit industry, established a State Board of Horticulture with power to suppress infestations—at first of its wine grapes, which were threatened by a root louse (the Phylloxera vastatrix that was wreaking havoc in European vineyards) and then of all commercial fruits. By 1896, fifteen states had passed orchard inspection laws, at least some of which, like California’s board, authorized state agents to spray suspect plants, even against the wishes of the growers.

Pauly notes that state measures to guard against infestations from beyond their borders were made more difficult in the late nineteenth century by the Supreme Court’s increasing protection of interstate commerce from local interference, including the regulation of animal health. Early in the twentieth century, however, Charles Marlatt, who became a high-ranking official in the USDA’s Bureau of Entomology, emerged as a strong advocate for federal regulation of agricultural pests. Like David Fairchild, he came from Kansas, but while Fair- child was a cosmopolitan in his attitudes toward plant importation, Marlatt was a nativist, eager to restrict plant introductions as a safeguard against pests. In 1909, when his bureau found various infestations in the Japanese cherry trees destined for the new Mall, he recommended destruction of the entire shipment, a proposal that Pauly says reflected fears of the Yellow Peril. The trees were burned with President Taft’s approval, but the Japanese sent a new shipment, carefully sanitized, that was accepted and planted in 1912.

That year, largely because of Marlatt’s efforts, Congress passed the Plant Quarantine Act, which gave the USDA unprecedented police powers. As Pauly writes, “its uniformed agents could stop and search individuals, and seize their property, to prevent the spread of pests from one state to another.” Marlatt had been assisted in his cause by mounting concern in California over the arrival from Hawaii of the Mediterranean fruit fly, which feeds on and ruins many different fruits and vegetables. This prompted the state to establish a quarantine division. The federal quarantine act, which included administrative compromises to maintain local control of regulation, contained language specific to the dangerous fly.

In November 1918, in keeping with the spirit of the intensifying immigration restriction movement, Marlatt issued Quarantine 37, an administrative order that, with few exceptions, prohibited entry of foreign nursery stock so as to exclude plant pests and diseases from the United States. The head of the US Forestry Association, which supported the sweeping measure, compared it to the literacy test, calling it the end of the “open door to plant immigrants,” and expressing the hope that “the treasonable activities of these enemy aliens will be curbed.”

Horticulturists and their allies not only established orchards, vines, and grasses in the East, the Midwest, and California but, as Pauly recounts, endowed the hitherto wood-free prairies with timber and fruit trees, developed industries of oranges and semitropical plants in Florida, and sculpted landscaped installations from Hyde Park to Central Park. While some of these episodes are familiar, Pauly breaks new ground by attending less to forests and more to trees—to the decisions made about what to plant and to the cultural values that the decisions revealed.

His examples are telling—for instance, Andrew J. Downing, the influential landscape architect, responded to the Irish immigration in the 1840s by railing against the planting of foreign trees and called on northeasterners to rely on “clean natives.” Harriet Beecher Stowe tried to promote orange groves on the St. John’s River in post–Civil War Florida in the hope of providing an alternative to the slavery-tainted cotton business. In Nebraska, in 1872, J. Sterling Morton, later Grover Cleveland’s secretary of agriculture, initiated what became the nationwide Arbor Day to promote the planting of trees on the prairies for both economic and environmental advantage. J. Horace McFarland, a publisher of horticultural books and magazines, organized a coalition of scientists and amateurs to contest the plant quarantine rules that obstructed their long-standing practice of freely importing and sharing novelties.

The plant quarantine system fell apart in the first half of the 1930s, Pauly points out, undermined in significant part by criticism that it had failed to prevent new pests from entering and spreading throughout the United States. Dutch elm disease came with timber imported from France for furniture veneer. By then the self-conscious drive for horticultural improvement had dissipated, replaced by the penchant of an increasingly suburban nation for gardening and landscape design. In the succeeding decades the United States grew even more globally engaged with plants as with much else.

During the 1990s, Pauly notes, the country was beset by a new wave of apprehension about invasions of “alien species,” a term that implicitly applied to foreigners but that also revived “linguistic links between human immigrants and noxious pests.” In the climate of fear and restriction that enveloped the country, David Fairchild’s response in 1917 to Marlatt’s campaign for what became Quarantine 37 remained apropos: Such exclusions, he said, ran contrary to the “trend of the world…toward greater intercourse, more frequent exchange of commodities, less isolation, and a greater mixture of the plants and plant products over the face of the globe.”

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    Daniel J. Kevles, “Patents, Protections, and Privileges: The Establishment of Intellectual Property in Animals and Plants,” Isis, Vol. 98, No. 2 (June 2007).

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