American Journal of Science and Arts, 2 ser., 27(81): 440 (May 1859)
VILMORIN'S IMPROVEMENT OF CULTIVATED PLANTS
Asa Gray

1Notice sur l'Amelioration des Plantes par le Semis et Considérations sur l'Hérédité dans les Végétaux. Par M. Louis Vilmorin. Paris, 1859.

This very interesting pamphlet1 is a collection and reprint of several of Louis Vilmorin's important communications to the Central Agricultural Society of France and to the Academy of Sciences: to which is prefixed a French translation of a memoir upon the Amelioration of the Wild Carrot, contributed by his venerable father to the Transactions of the London Horticultural Society (but not before published in the vernacular of the author), which memoir, as the younger Vilmorin informs us, was the point of departure for his own investigations in this field, and even contains the germ of most of the ideas which he has since developed upon the theory of the amelioration of the plants from the seed. These papers claim the attention of the philosophical naturalist, no less than of the practical horticulturalist.

Most of our esculents are deviations from the natural state of the species, which have arisen under the care and labor of man in very early times. New varieties of these cultivated races are originated almost every year, indeed; but between these particular varieties, the differences, however well marked, are not to be compared for importance with those changes which the wild plant has generally undergone in assuming the esculent state. In this amelioration or alteration, as in other cases, c'est la première pas qui coûte. For the altered race, once originated, has more stability than the wild stock; it accordingly tends not only to degenerate (as the cultivator would term it) towards its original and less useful state, but also to sport into new deviations, in various directions, with a freedom and facility not manifested by its wild ancestors. This explains the readiness with which we continually obtain new varieties of those esculent plants which have been a long time in cultivation, while a newly-introduced plant exhibits little flexibility. To detect the earliest indications of sporting, and to select for the parents of the new race those individuals which begin to vary in the requisite direction, is the part of the scientific cultivator. In this way, the elder Vilmorin succeeded in producing the esculent carrot from the wild stock in the course of three generations, — no addition to our resources, indeed, but significant of what may be done by art directed by science. By adopting and skillfully applying these principles, the younger Vilmorin has conferred a benefit upon France which (if she will continue to make sugar from the beet) may almost be compared with that of causing two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, having, so to say, created a race of beets containing twice as much sugar as their ancestors, and indicated the practicability of its perpetuation. The mode of procedure, and the ingenious methods he contrived for rapidly selecting the most saccharine out of a whole crop of beets, as seed-bearers for the next season, are detailed in these papers.

Once originated, and established by selection and segregation for a few generations, the race becomes fixed and perpetuable in cultivation, with proper care against intermixture, in virtue of the most fundamental of organic laws, namely, that the offspring shall inherit the characteristics of the parent, — of which law that of the general permanence of species is one of the consequences. The desideratum in the production of a race is, how to initiate the deviation. The divellent force, or idiosyncrasy, the source of that "infinite variety in unity which characterizes the works of the Creator," though ever active in all organisms, is commonly limited in its practical results to the production of those slighter differences which ensure that no two descendants of the same parent shall be just alike, being overborne by that opposite or centripetal force, whatever it be, which ensures the particular resemblance of offspring to parents. Now the latter force, as Mr. Louis Vilmorin has well remarked, is really an aggregation of forces, composed of the individual attraction of a series of ancestors, which we may regard as the attraction of the type of the species, and which we perceive is generally all-powerfuL There is also the attraction or influence of the immediate parent, less powerful than the aggregate of the ancestry, but more close, which ever tends to impress upon the offspring all the parental peculiarities. So, when the parent has no salient individual characteristics, both the longer and the shorter lines of force are parallel, and combine to produce the same result. But whenever the immediate parent deviates from the type, its influence upon its offspring is no longer parallel with that of the ancestry; so the tendency of the offspring to vary no longer radiates around the type of the species as a centre, but around some point upon the line which represents the amount of its deviation from the type. Left to themselves, as Mr. Vimorin proceeds to remark, such varieties mostly perish in the vast number of individuals which annually disappear, — or else, we may add, are obliterated in the next generation through cross-fertilization by pollen of the surrounding individuals of the typical sort, whence results the general fixity of species in Nature. But under man's protecting care they are preserved and multiplied, perhaps still further modified, and the better sorts fixed by selection and segregation.

Keeping these principles in view, Mr. Vilmorin concluded that, in order to obtain varieties of any particular sort, his first endeavor should be to elicit variation in any direction whatever; that is, he selected his seed simply from those individuals which differed most from the type of the species, however unlike the state it was desired to originate. Repeating this in the second, third, and the succeeding generations, the resulting plants were found to have a tendency to vary widely, as was anticipated; being loosed, as it were, from the ancestral influence, which no longer acted upon a straight and continuous line, but upon one broken and interrupted by the opposing action of the immediate parents and grandparents. Thus confused by the contrariety of its inherited tendencies, it is the more free to sport in various ways; and we have only to select those variations which manifest the qualities desired, as the progenitors of the new race, and to develop and fix the product by selection upon the same principle continued for several generations.

It is in this way that Mr. Vilmorin supposes cross-fertilization to operate in the production of new varieties; and even in the crossing of two distinct species, the result, he thinks, is rarely, if ever, the production of a fertile hybrid, but of an offspring which, thus powerfully impressed by the strange fertilization and rendered productive by the pollen of its own female parent, is then most likely to give origin to a new race.

We cannot follow out this interesting but rather recondite subject in a brief article like this. But we are naturally led to inquire whether the history of those plants with which man has had most to do, and the study of the laws which regulate the production and perpetuation of domesticated races, may not throw some light upon the production of varieties in Nature; and whether races may not have naturally originated, occasionally, under circumstances equivalent to artificial selection and segregation. Some recent attempts which have been made in this direction we may hope to notice upon another occasion.