Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, 1: 311-313 (July 23, 1861)

Donald Beaton


ANOTHER cross-breeder says that both of us, the Herefordshire Rector, and the writer, are right about the Wheat question, and also both wrong, but declines giving or allowing his name to be given: therefore the question stands yet on the last issue. What I undertook to prove is, that the pollen is discharged in the bottom of the husk before the stamen lengthens; and what the worthy Rector affirms is, that the stamen pushes up the anther, and the anther does not discharge the pollen till the farmer can see it outside the husk, if he looks for it. The man without the spirit of his mother says the Rector is wrong in supposing the pollen is not shed till the anthers are seen outside the husks, and that I am wrong in putting the time too early; but in my challenge I gave up that point for this reason, that some varieties of Wheat might be like varieties of many other plants I cross or look into for the sake of crossing—that is, flower much earlier or much later than others—a point of little practical use. He says out of eleven kinds of Wheat with which he is acquainted, only one comes so early as I (first) stated, and that in three kinds the ears are 6 inches out of the sheath before the pollen is ripe. And there is a second party who saw and understood my "dissections," a lady, but she will not consent to have a say in it: therefore, if it is agreeable to the Rector, I should like to decide the question another way—that is, get a dozen or fifteen kinds of the best marked Wheat by next October, and two or three of the best spring Wheat, including the Talavera, to be sown next March, the lot to be grown in the rectory garden of Surbiton, for I can calculate on getting a little space there for a point of great interest. The examinations and the result to be entrusted to any one, and to be recorded in this Journal.


"It never rains but it pours," however, and this harvest question was not ripe for the sickle when Mr. Darwin touched the quick to the marrow, in his inquiry after the fashions of the centrifugal flowers in a head or truss. There is a greater harvest to be reaped out of that question than any one of us is yet aware of, or even dreamed about. And the last feather is said to break the back of the beast. "NICKERBOR" laid on that feather last week, page 305; and I must say more than ever I intended to say, or else allow my back to snap with the last feather. Well, I have seen two things since Mr. Darwin put the question about the central flower, and one of them has made a revolution in my own ideas on a branch of my daily work—a branch in crossing. And I shall make a clean breast of it to save the back. I saw two flowers growing in one head, and they represented two good botanical genera. The origin of two genera were in that head. The central flower represented the Geraniums of Europe, and the rest of the flowers were of true Pelargoniums; the first with regular and the second with irregular flowers (begging pardon of the florists). The flower was the produce of his majesty the king of cross-breeders, and Mr. Darwin may have seen it before this. The other flower was in my own garden, and it also represented two different botanical genera, if not three. It was a deep variety of the dark-leaved Shamrock Clover which I had from Mr. Salter last year. The flowers are those of the white Clover, a Pea flower; but the axis of every head on my plants was disturbed by some strong stimulus. The effect was various, the axis or central flower rose up into a stalk carrying flowers in three different ways, and in one instance the flowers of two genera. One kind had three whorls of the usual flowers, one above the other; one had the flowers panicle fashion; one had the top whorl of four flowers included within one common calyx; and one had the extremity changed into regular flowers.

In order not to be laughed at for such vagaries, I showed the panicle and common calyx sport to Mr. Moore, Secretary to the Floricultural Committee, and I sent the one with the regular flowers to Mr. Wraxwell J. Masters, a good botanist, who is now studying that branch of the science, and would be glad to receive specimens of morphology from any one. His address is Rye Lane, Peckham, S.W. Just send him any out-of-the-way thing you may see among flowers. What he said of that Clover will not rise in judgment against me. "It is of particular interest, inasmuch as the uppermost central flower is quite regular, not papilionaceous at all."

Now, you take these two instances of this last month of June, and consider them with the two instances now before you, of two cross-breeders having been able to determine that two races of plants can be had from one head of bloom by the pollen of one father, and see what you can bring it to. Mr. Standish had not the faintest idea that I was aware of the vagaries of the same pollen, when he had founded one branch of his own practice on the knowledge of the fact; and what induced me to commit the secret to Dr. Hogg, three years since, was the belief that I should only be laughed at in those days for stating such a simple truth, as it was new — for this world is so prone to the marvellous, that a new idea or a new fact has no relish with it unless it is involved in some most tremendous complexity, and lest I should die before men's ideas were ripe for receiving the thing simply on its own merits. Mr. Standish some years since published the foundation of his discovery in the Journal of the Horticultural Society, without giving the smallest idea of the fact of the pollen part of the process with Rhododendrons. Without much practical knowledge in the crossing of that race, I could then, and much more now, back up every word he said from my own practice in Pelargoniums. I forget the very words, but his meaning was, that you could run the race by crossing till the seedlings could not stand on, their legs and could not be reared. I can do the same thing by the same process with Surprise and Shrubland Scarlet Geraniums, the two strongest kinds now in the race. Well, the two are moat extensive families, and they branch off much in the same well-marked features as Rhodora and Azalea in the Rhododendron genus; and as Erodium, Hoarea, Campylia, and the other like sections of Pelargonium. But a great difference meets you on the threshold between these two extensive families when you come to cross them. All the sections, or the genera of old authors, of the Rhododendron cross freely enough; but no one section of the Pelargonium will do so with any other section except, perhaps, a few of the little tuberous-rooted Hoareas, and yet with that great difference the same principle is common to each of them, for the branching out of new races with distinctive habits. Then the question is, Are these two families alone of all the family of plants endowed with this principle? Surely not: the principle in some way or other must pervade the whole vegetable kingdom, and practice will have to discover this principle and its application in a great number of genera before much good can be done with it by speculating theorists, or scientific deductions.


But the sharp end of the wedge is in, and we must drive it home before we shall be masters of the mystery of the variegation of plants. Very few indeed can now be convinced by special arguments. I believe, and I have my own long practice to back me, that disease has no more to do with variegation in plants than I have to do with the people of St. Ives. But I believe also that we all know what it is, and that we only differ in the meaning of the expression "disease." If I went a-shooting, broke my leg, and the limb mortified, did I or could I die by disease? I am, perhaps, the healthiest of all gardeners, yet might have died of a disease according to one-half the world — and there is just the root of the question for want of better terms to express it. Every condition of every plant, barring accidents, must be traced to an equivalent in the blood, or the sap as we say. Plants receive all kinds of variegation through their sap. Every gardener knows a diseased plant when he sees it, but no gardener has ever yet seen one diseased plant turn variegated. I happen to know the person who signed his name "AN OLD SHOWMAN," and also the very subject on which he worked; and if I did not know from my own experience the origin and the cause of his plants turning variegated, I confess I should be on the same journey with him. lie is a man of great practice with an original turn of mind, and the last man on the turf whom one could call a fast man — in short, the very kind of person to convince one even against his will; but the evidence of the senses is the same as the bare fact, and the fact is, that variegation like the origin of races begins first with the pollen. All the variegation in the hand of "AN OLD SHOWMAN," had that origin, and his manipulation of the plants goes no further than to manifest the fact before its time. I have at this moment the very reverse of his process revealing the very same facts which he stated, and he can see it if he should happen to come to this part of the country. And if he comes to London, I invite him down to see more than one hundred Pelargoniums which I brought under his process on purpose to the verge of life. I caused nine-tenths of their substance to become putrid, and exhorted the tenth part to live and show me how he got his variegation; but as I was quite sure from the beginning, not a single leaf did I turn from its usual way and colour. And if he can get one of my one hundred plants to turn variegated in one, two, or three years, by a second and a third repetition of the same process, I shall give him a Scotch gallon of whiskey for his Christmas, for he, too, is descended of the legions of Montrose.

My belief is this: the variegation of a plant — of all plants — appeared first in the seed-leaf before there were roots to get it, or what caused it, from the earth, or in some one of the leaves which appeared immediately after the seed-leaf, and while the tiny thing was yet dependant for the chief part of its nourishment on the natural office of the seed-leaf; the seed-leaves in the vegetable kingdom being equivalent to the mamma? or teats in the animal kingdom. When the leaves of seedlings are once able to act on the roots the seedling is fit to be weaned. You can do away with the seed-leaves with little or no injury, and once a seedling is weaned no art of man or woman will ever get it to turn a single variegated leaf to the end of time; and if a seedling has had a variegated seed-leaf, or another leaf that showed variation before it had been weaned, and that plant has had two years' growth over the space occupied by the variegated leaf or leaves, no art of man is, or will be able ever to divest that plant of the principle, if I may call it so, of variegation; and after the lapse of a year, or of a generation, that principle will break out when the plant is under some certain conditions. That is what you have to discover — the conditions under which variegation, in a certain family, will surely appear if it is inherent in any one of its members from the seedling state. But that condition may not suffice for a member of the family nearest in alliance, or it may for many families: that part is the mystery.

Mr. Standish can cross any Rhododendron, including the great Nepaul tree Rhododendrons, down or up to the verge of variegation, and until there is not a particle of colour in the leaves, and no art of man can grow the seedlings, yet every one of them is in perfect health according to its own degree of existence. The tiny midge is as healthy as the antelope. The seedling which no one can grow is just as healthy as the midge, or as the antelope, according to its own rank in life.


Variegation is a consequence of some condition of the pollen, be it foreign or natural; and the new discovery about the origin of races is the surest witness we have, that to enable plants to continue true and healthy, strong and lasting in their generations, Nature has invested the pollen with the power of keeping up the stock. The strongest and the healthiest plant of a kind is able to take the lead on the stigma over ten other plants that are less likely to do credit to the family name. I have asserted that long enough, and here is the proof out of Baron Hugel seed-pods. I can bring you a plant, a seedling, that will be twice as strong as the Baron, and out of the same truss another seedling that will not be so strong as he, nor like him in appearance; and in another cross, or in a third one, according to the strength of my chief ancestor, I shall show you a plant which, probably, you would not acknowledge to belong to the same section as the Baron, and all from the pollen of one flower.

In the great bulk of the Scarlet or Horseshoe Geraniums there are but seven stamens, four long ones, one of medium length, but which is often wanting, and two almost sessile like the anthers of Wheat—that is, very short indeed, and opening at the bottom face to face. These two are they which reduce a whole family to beggary; first to dwarfs or Tom Thumbs, or better still, to minimums, or the smallest of that kind consistent with vigour sufficient to become a useful plant in cultivation, and, lastly, to the brink of ruin, and drive that race out of existence altogether, if there were not other means provided to arrest the decline, or keep it from manifesting itself at all in a state of Nature.

Now, it is wonderful how simple things are when once we know them; but it is more wonderfully simple how I find out that mystery. You recollect how I said my seeds were sown and labelled; it was by taking every pod or beak from the truss of a Geranium just before the seeds were quite ripe, and planting the pods round the sides of pots, like one row of cuttings. If the pod was full there would be five seedlings to every bunch of them as they appeared. My number for Baron Hugel is fifteen, and all seeds of the Baron have that number on the face of the tally, and the number of the pollen kind is cut on the edge of the same tally. Now, as my experimental seeds could never get mixed by this method, and, as often happened, the tally with fifteen on the face, and eighteen (Stella) on the edge, showed whole bunches of very stout seedlings, and other bunches with very delicate ones, as appeared to me. There is nothing in these things without a cause, if we did but know it; and I puzzled my brains for two or three years before I discovered the real cause, and I made some of the most foolish experiments you ever heard of in the trials; but as my system of tallying cross seedlings cannot err, and knowing Nature never does in these things, I must and at last did find out the thing, and I hope it will be useful to you. To me it is of more value, as confirming the possibility of the strongest pollen taking the lead on the stigma.

See also, Müller, et al.: Two Kinds of Stamens with Different Functions in the Same Flower (1881)

Beaton Bibliography