Species and Varieties: Their Origin by Mutation (1906) pp.75-78

Hugo DeVries

Van Mons' Apples

At the present day the wild apples are very rich in elementary species. Those of Versailles are not the same as those of Belgium, and still others are growing in England and in Germany. The botanical differences derived from the blossoms and the leaves are slight, but the flavor, size and shape of the fruits diverge widely. Two opinions have been advanced to explain this high degree of variability, but neither of them conveys a real explanation; their aim is chiefly to support different views as to the causes of variability, and the origin of elementary species at large.

One opinion, advocated by De Candolle, Darwin and others, claims that the varieties owe their origin to the direct influence of cultivation, and that the corresponding forms found in the wild state, are not at all original, but have escaped from cultivation and apparently become wild. Of course this possibility cannot be denied, at least in any single instance, but it seems too sweeping an assertion to make for the whole range of observed forms.

The alternative theory is that of van Mons, the Belgian originator of commercial varieties of apples, who has published his experiments in a large work called "Arbres fruitiers ou Pomonomie belge." Most of the more remarkable apples of the first half of the last century were produced by van Mons, but his greatest merit is not the direct production of a number of good varieties, but the foundation of the method, by which new varieties may be obtained and improved.

According to van Mons, the production of a new variety consists chiefly of two parts. The first is the discovery of a subspecies with new desirable qualities. The second is the transformation of the original small and woody apple into a large, fleshy and palatable variety. Subspecies, or what we now call elementary species were not produced by man; nature alone creates new forms, as van Mons has it. He examined with great care the wild apples of his country, and especially those of the Ardennes, and found among them a number of species with different flavors. For the flavor is the one great point, which must be found ready in nature and which may be improved, but can never be created by artificial selection. The numerous differences in flavor are quite original; all of them may be found in the wild state and most of them even in so limited a region as the Ardennes Mountains. Of course van Mons preferred not to start from the wild types themselves, when the same flavor could be met with in some cultivated variety. His general method was, to search for a new flavor and to try to bring the bearer of it up to the desired standard of size and edibility.

The latter improvement, though it always makes the impression of an achievement, is only the last stone to be added to the building up of the commercial value of the variety. Without it, the best flavored apple remains a crab; with it, it becomes a conquest. According to the method of van Mons it may be reached within two or three generations, and a man's life is wholly sufficient to produce in this way many new types of the very best sorts, as van Mons himself has done. It is done in the usual way, sowing on a large scale and selecting the best, which are in their turn brought to an early maturation of their fruit by grafting, because thereby the life from seed to seed may be reduced to a few years.

Form, taste, color, flavor and other valuable marks of new varieties are the products of nature, says van Mons, only texture, fleshiness and size are added by man. And this is done in each new variety by the same method and according to the same laws. The richness of the cultivated apples of the present day was already present in the large range of original wild elementary species, though unobserved and requiring improvement.

Van Mons bibliography