Jour. of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener 196-197 (December 3, 1961)
IS VARIEGATION A DISEASE?
Jas. Anderson, Meadow Bank, Uddingstone.
By all means let us have things called by their proper names. We are, everybody knows, already running riot with our interpretation of the words of the English language in its etymological sense. Indeed, there is little wonder that foreigners are so perplexed at, and declaim so vigorously against, its peculiar construction and diverse application. Let a few more papers be written to the effect that variegation in vegetable physiology is the consequence of disease—re vera as some would nave it disease proper, and possibly the very next edition of Walker's Dictionary may have them set down as synonymous terms. Fortunately there is a growing desire in the best conducted literature of the day to discountenance aberrant allegorical construction. There are instances on record of seemingly far less moment than the one in question where the creation of a novel term has called forth a considerable amount of criticism, and latterly either been accepted or ignored; among which we might mention Lord John Russell's celebrated phrase in criticising the wording of a certain bill—"Conspicuous for its absence;" and also the adoption of the word telegram in lieu of telegraphic dispatch. The latter of these instances, as will still be fresh in the recollection of many of your readers, created a very animated controversy between the chief members of the rival Universities, not to speak of other luminaries of learning. All the Greek dictionaries were dissected in order to establish pro and con their respective creeds of derivation, and now it is one of the commonplaces of conversation in everyday life, doubtless all the more readily adopted for its brevity.
That, of course, was simply a question of derivation; but this involves a far more intricate question, more especially if we concede that variegation is the consequence of disease either in root, stem, or organs of reproduction, and something not quite so intricate if we dispute that is disease proper. These, apparently, are the two cardinal points at issue, and all practical men must know either less or more concerning them.
We have no invincible demonstration to convince ns that variegation in its many forms is the consequence of disease in the physiological systems of the plants from which it springs, whether that variegation was the result of cross-breeding, or whether it sprung up spontaneously in course of nature. It is possible in animal physiology that parents afflicted with disease from their very youth may produce isolated examples of offspring perfectly healthy; so it seems possible, and admitted on all sides, that variegated plants will produce numerous seedlings as healthy and as heavily charged with chlorophyll as their grandfathers and grandmothers and great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, if ever they had such venerable kinsfolks. But Mr. Darwin says that "analogy is a deceitful guide." Is it not so in this instance? Ask all the best gardeners in the country who do not adhere with stoic pertinacity to "set rules"—of course, we may be open to such a charge—and ninety-nine out of every hundred will tell you that the variegated plants committed to their care, and under their most diligent scrutiny are just as healthy and nearly as patient of fatigue as other cognate species with more perfect (?) digestive and respiratory organs. There are as little appearances of premature decay and wearing out amongst them, and their numbers are fast increasing, than among their more gigantic congeners. Do Mr. A. Henry and those who think with him place Golden Chain and Dandy Geraniums on the same footing as Flower of the Day and Countess of Warwick? Surely not. Their malady cannot be of so malignant a nature. We might just as well affirm that Tom Thumb and Frogmore, because they are comparative dwarfs to Glendining Scarlet and Cerise Unique, were also in trouble. They are fully charged with chlorophyll to be sure, but they are diminutive; and we are fully of opinion that all variegated plants can be empanelled for no worse trait of character. Mr. Beaton says truly that "the tiny midge is as healthy as the antelope."
It is very generally admitted by all those who have thought over the question that variegation is invariably accompanied with a diminution of growth; but we have yet to see with our eyes, although "we have heard with our ears strange things—things too wonderful to understand," that diminution in stature is accompanied with disease. You may call it retrogressive variation—if you have any sympathy with the leanings of the floral-loving community you will be obliged to call it progressive variation; but you must first tell us the symptoms of the disease, and point out one single anomalous instance of its fatal effects before your theory is satisfactorily established. Disease, as we understand the term, is either curable or incurable. If these plants are the produce of some deficiency in the organs of reproduction and defective in turn, why is their existence indefinitely prolonged ? Why is it they do not pine away and die, or else revert to their original prototypes ? It is strange their absorbing, digestive, and respiratory organs are in the very best working order. Brilliant Geranium does its duty quite as well in the hands of the cultivator—and what it wants in rampant growth it yields in abundance of bloom—as its elder congener Tom Thumb, from which variety it sprang as a sport or variation; so does the variegated Alyssum, and so does the variegated Balm, and many other things which might be mentioned. Such are a few of the examples of the plastic power of Nature which have been produced not by manipulation, probably not by accident, and which might have escaped almost scatheless had the foliage been anything else but variegated. Mr. A. Henry strikes the key-note with undeniable force and accuracy, and shapes his language in a more modified tone thus—"That if it is not disease it is an affection of the plant entailing impaired vigour, and, I hold, diminished growth, whose true cause, whether originating in the seed or occurring in the bunch it is alike desirable to have ascertained; for there is at present a rage for these variegated things, and if the laws which produce or affect them can be clearly shown, then it will be profitable to some and instructive to all to know them."
That is the point I contend for, and so long as morphologically and physiologically speaking, variegated plants enjoy unimpaired health, so long as their organisation is complete, so long ns the assimilating process goes on increasing their bulk, I shall always believe, even the most questionable amongst them, to be no less constitutionally and anomalously different from their lustier congeners than the Red Indian from the Esquimaux. Both may not live and thrive under the same-treatment, but it is possible to keep them both alive and equally healthy. Doubtless, there are many instances either unobserved or uncared for, where a wonderful "struggle for existence" goes on to the discomfiture and, in time, dissolution of the weaker party. If a row of Limes and variegated Hollies were planted alternately at 6 feet or even 12 feet apart, you would in a very few years see struggle for existence with a vengeance if you allowed the Hollies to remain; but if you transplant them to proper positions in favoured localities and use the pruning-knife with discrimination, you would in course of time have magnificent pyramids amply repaying any labour you might bestow upon them. If we wish to be successful with anything, we must use the means.
We do not require two distinct freaks of Nature to be designated by synonymous terms. They are evidently distinct in their general appearance, and sufficiently dissimilar in physiological structure so as not to warrant such familiarities with their habits. Every practical gardener can tell that particular kind of discolouring that indicates disease. You will occasionally see the bleached sickly-looking appearance of some individual branches of Camellias in a Camellia-house. Nobody but a tyro would graft any of these branches with the view of sending it out as a variegated plant; for on administering a proper antidote the leaves revert to their original dark green. You will see instances of such like on the Portugal Laurel, which can be quite as easily accounted for and as easily remedied. But you very seldom, if ever, lose a pure variegation. If we want to see disease we do not require to perambulate our stores, our greenhouses, and our parterres, where all are rich in beauty, it may be perfect in health, and increasing in bulk every visit during the growing season. We, on this side the Tweed, only want to take a walk through the great fruit orchards in the vale of Clyde, or in the Carse of Gowrie, to see it in its malignant form. There it may be seen in all its stages of development, indicating debility and death from the scraggy-looking lichen-covered stumps of more than half a century, to the vigorous-looking four-year-old, where canker has only insidiously begun.
I was just wondering in what light the supporters of this hypothetical theory would view the sporting disposition of many varieties of flowers. Do those streaked, blotched, and spotted varieties of the Snapdragon (Antirrhinum), which are constantly produced from 1s. packets of seeds in endless diversity of strains, or the "roary" [dewy] colours of these new fancy Pansies exhibited by Downie, Laird, & Laing, come within the category of disease? Then all these fine Hippeastrums (Amaryllids), which I have taken a great interest in for the last half-dozen years, are just so many types of disease. This, of course, will include all the Vittata section, and so many of the Reticulatum and Solandriflorum sections as have been induced by manipulation to depart from their normal state. This is not a "cross-breeding" chapter, or else I might dilate on my difficulties and successes in crossing these three distinct types; but I may state that I have seen sufficient to convince me that variegation, which I call simply variation, is not arbitrary in its tendencies to reproduce. There are some species in Nature, however, which say to the manipulator, "Thither shall thou go and no further," as, for example, the mule in animal physiology.
I may tell you in conclusion, that it is only two years ago when I was particularly struck with a few anomalous examples of Camellia blooms. They were the admiration of everybody who saw them, so beautifully were they blotched, and so perfect in form that the lady portion of the visitors especially almost worshipped them. Some supposed that it was a seedling I had been fortunate enough to raise; others whom I considered good judges asked what London nurseryman had supplied it, and what was its name and price. "Surely," say some, as they rubbed the leaves with finger and thumb, "it is not imbricata." A good judge can pick this variety out among thousands, although not in bloom. It certainly was imbricata, and I have it now in half-dozens completely under my control. I could take either one plant or half-a-dozen plants at one time, and by adopting no very-out-of-the-way method, insure every individual bloom to come blotched. So could I take half-a-dozen at another time and insure nearly every—(for it has a tendency to sport with general treatment)—bloom to come self. All the plants are equally healthy, equally vigorous, showing not the slightest emblems of disease, unless it be the variegation in question, which both ladies and gentlemen prize, and which I am anxious to encourage. I do not believe in keeping secrets of this kind, any more than Mr. Beaton and I shall divulge my practice some other day.—Jas. Anderson, Meadow Bank, Uddingstone.