The Fascinating World of the Nightshades (1987)
Charles Bixler Heiser
Chapter 5: The Wonderberry
|Black nightshade—Solanum nigrum|
Luther Burbank was a genius and the greatest plant breeder of all times, according to some people. To others, he was something of a fraud. Even now, nearly fifty years after his death, to sift through all the claims and counterclaims that appeared during his lifetime, in order to assess his real contribution, is a difficult task. Perhaps the best evaluation of the man and his work to date is Walter Howard's book, Luther Burbank, A Victim of Hero Worship. Howard's account makes it quite clear that although Burbank was not a scientist he was a good practical plant breeder, who must be credited with producing a number of worthwhile horticultural varieties. Although he was to be used as a model of a self-made man for grade-school children for many years to come, Burbank's fall from fame, if it may be called that, started about 1908. Several factors contributed, one of which was that his "spineless cactus" was not living up to the claims made for it. The controversy over another one of his creations, the sunberry or wonderberry, also played a prominent role.
The various accounts that Burbank gives of the origin of the sunberry are not in complete agreement. In one place he stated that a single seed gave rise to the new hybrid,, and in another he reported that he had secured about 20 hybrid seedlings. It took 26 seasons to produce the plant, according to one of his accounts, and in another, published in 1907, he stated that the experiments leading to the production of his "new species" were begun in 1895. The hybrid was reportedly secured by crossing Solanum guineense, "a native of west central Africa" that had a practically "inedible berry," and Solanum villosum, which had "an insipid, tasteless" fruit. He was consistent in his account of the hybrid origin of the plant, but in 1907 he said that one parent, Solanum villosum, was from Chile and in 1914 he stated that this parent was indigenous to Europe. We do know for certain that he regarded the new plant as an important creation, and that he apparently held this opinion until his death. For this new plant he chose the name sunberry.
Burbank sold many of his plants to John Lewis Childs for distribution, and apparently had no control over them after the sale. The sunberry was among the plants sold to Childs, who, without Burbank's permission, changed its name to wonderberry. Childs put the plant on the market in 1909 as "Luther Burbank's greatest and newest production. Fruit blue-black like an enormous rich blueberry. Unsurpassed for eating ... in any form. The greatest garden fruit ever introduced .... Easiest plant in the world to grow, succeeding anywhere and yielding great masses of rich fruit." Other glowing accounts written by Childs appeared, and he published a pamphlet, "100 Ways of Using the Fruit."
Very shortly after its introduction the wonderberry was to receive attention from the press; and Herbert W. Collingwood, president and editor of The Rural New Yorker, "The Business Farmers' Paper, a National Weekly for Country and Suburban Homes, established 1850," was to become the most vocal in the antiwonderberry movement. Collingwood was a crusader, and one of his pet projects was honesty in advertising. In 1909, the masthead of The Rural New Yorker read, "A square deal. We believe that every advertisement in this paper is backed by a responsible person. But to make doubly sure we will make good any loss to paid subscribers sustained by trusting any deliberate swindler advertising in these columns, and any such swindler will be deliberately exposed." Coilingwood, perhaps more than any other person, wrecked Childs' campaign for the wonderberry and promoted the wonderberry controversy. The story is best told from the pages of The Rural New Yorker.
Before going into the controversy, however, we should call attention to a brief editorial note in The Rural New Yorker of February 6, 1909, which concluded with the statement, "Without in the least disparaging Mr. Burbank's great ability we think it is about time someone made a list of the things he has created which have run the gauntlet of practical use!" The first reference to the wonderberry in the paper that year was in an article by the associate editor, who claimed to recognize the wonderberry from the advertisements as "our old friend, Solanum nigrum, or stubbleberry of the Dakotas" (which is also known as common black nightshade). The next reference appeared on February 27 in the form of a letter from a reader asking if the wonderberry was a fake. Collingwood replied at some length, claiming no knowledge of the wonderberry, but questioning whether Childs should have given it so much publicity when it had not yet been tested. He also pointed out that The Rural New Yorker had not carried an advertisement for it.
No mention was made of the wonderberry for the next few weeks, but on March 13 another letter from a reader was published. This reader, who was in California, rose to Burbank's defense and listed a number of his creations that the reader had personally tested and found valuable. Four weeks later Collingwood commented upon a letter he had received from "a good seedsman" who thought that The Rural New Yorker shouldn't hold Burbank responsible for the use that unscrupulous men had made of him. Collingwood would have agreed with this except that Burbank wouldn't repudiate the stories told in his name.
At about this time the wonderberry was discussed in certain European horticultural journals. The Gardeners' Chronicle of London, a highly respected journal in its field, carried the following article by "W. W." on March 21.
THE WONDERBERRY.—Another American creation, this time a cousin to the Potato and the Tomato, but more remarkable than either .... Two Solanums were... juggled with, and out came a miracle, the "Wonderberry." It will grow anywhere in any soil, except rich; it will fruit as no other plant can; and its fruits are just the thing for tarts and jam. An enthusiastic friend sent me a packet, and told me... to grow Wonderberry and make my family happy. I proceeded to look up the history of the two reputed parents. They proved to be nothing other than forms of S. nigrum, a weed in every country; therefore, the Wonderberry is S. nigrum also .... Then I remembered that this same story had been round in another form about two years ago, but the name given then was Huckleberry .... We grew some plants .... and they turned out to be simply Nightshade—S. nigrum. What does it all mean? Every intelligent child shuns the fruits of this weed of waste land and manure heaps, the poisonous properties of which are undoubted. Children who have eaten the fruit have died soon after from its effects, which are very distressing—vomiting, colic, convulsions, etc. Mr. N. E. Brown informs me, however, that in some countries the fruits of Solanum nigrum are not only innocuous, but they are actually eaten, and on consulting various books I found several records to that effect .... It is, therefore, quite possible that the Nightshade is poisonous in Great Britain and harmless in America. After all, are we so hard up for fruit as to be forced to turn to one of our most pestiferous weeds, which is also known to be a deadly poison, because we are advised to do this by some seedmen in America?
The Belgian Horticultural Review carried an article in the same month that more or less repeated Childs' claims for the fruits. These two articles came to Collingwood's attention, and he published them both on May 1 with the comment, "You pay your money and take your choice." The article in The Gardeners' Chronicle established the theme for the rest of the year for The Rural New Yorker: the wonderberry was to be mentioned or discussed at length in no fewer than 34 issues. The editor was still noncommittal on the value of the fruit, but reported that he had bought a twenty-cent packet of seeds and that his plants were growing under glass.
On May 29 an article appeared entitled "The Wonderberry and the Wizard Burbank." After commenting on "half-baked novelties," the writer continued as follows:
"I'm a very humble reader, with a home among the hills, and the thought of eating nightshade all my soul with anguish fills. I'm the ultimate consumer, and I only want to know, if the berry is a wonder, whether Burbank made it so!"
The "Wonderberry" appeared this season as one of the "novelties" which are sprung upon the public without official test or preparation. We had no chance to test it, but botanists of high reputation were sure it was in no wise different from the well-known Solanum nigrum...
A man in New York bought seed of the Wonderberry, naturally expecting that "Burbank's creation" would prove a prize indeed. A sea captain from England had read the article in The Gardeners' Chronicle, and he told our friend what is printed above. This man wrote Luther Burbank about it, and received the following reply:
"It is very kind of you to inquire at headquarters about the 'Wonderberry.' The name 'Sunberry' is the one which I rather preferred when I sold my rights in it to John Lewis Childs. As you probably know, newspaper reporters are not always as well posted as they should be.
"I am ready to make an offer of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) cash, cold coin, if any living person on earth proves that the 'Wonderberry' is the black nightshade or any other berry ever before known on this planet until I produced it.
"I have seen some criticisms, especially in THE RURAL NEW YORKER of New York City, where they simply show their ignorance of the whole matter.
"Now, I have made a good offer and it would please me very much if you would publish it in THE RURAL NEW YORKER and in the English publication you mentioned, The Gardeners Chronicle, as it is not in good taste for me to meet these statements personally, and, furthermore, they will find out how mistaken they are."
(Signed) Luther Burbank
If Burbank would make as sure of his novelties as he makes safe in his offers little fault could be found with him or them. We name Burbank as the "living person on earth," who is well qualified to finger that $10,000. He proves by his own statements that the "Wonderberry" resulted from crossing of S. villosum and S. guineense. As The Gardeners' Chronicle states above, the result of this cross must be nightshade! Mr. Burbank should at once hand himself that $10,000 for he has earned it. If, however, he does not consider it good taste to have money or honors thrust upon himself THE R. N. Y. will put in a modest plea for the amount.
From the next issue we learn that the editor had personally written Burbank in regard to the $10,000 offer.
We think we are able to prove that the wonderberry is black nightshade to the satisfaction of most people. I now write to respectfully ask what you consider definite proof. What would you expect us to do in order to demonstrate to your satisfaction that the wonderberry is really a nightshade? I shall be very pleased to have you specify just what you desire in way of proof.
The next reference to Burbank was on June 19 with a letter from a reader maintaining that some of Burbank's fruits were very good. The writer, however, hadn't tried the wonderberry, and went on to say, "I do not share the fears that have been hinted at by others that there was a conspiracy somewhere between the originator and introducer of the Wonderberry to poison off the rest of mankind by inducing them to eat nightshade under a new name." Collingwood took the opportunity to note that they welcomed any "fair reports of the behavior" of Burbank's plants. "The verdict of the public regarding their value is final," A week later an anonymous letter appeared from a reader who was sick of their knocking Burbank. Ordinarily such letters were not printed, we learn, but the editor used it to remind the readers that their argument with Burbank was over the botanical nature of the plant. "We are now giving him ample time to state what we should do to earn the $10,000."
On July 3 the editor pointed out that they had waited a month and still had not received a reply from Burbank. "We have proof... and shall go ahead and give the facts, leaving the public to decide whether we earn the $10,000 or not." In the next issue a letter from Burbank was reported to have finally arrived, and was duly published:
"This is in reply to your personal note of May 17, just received, and I know that you would like to get that ten thousand dollars.
"[l have] no personal or financial interest in the Sunberry, or 'Wonderberry,' as it has been rechristened by its purchaser and introducer .. . . As to its absolutely unique character you perhaps can be further informed by those who know it a little better than you do. Some interesting information might be obtained by addressing Dr. George H. Shull ... or Dr. W. A. Cannon ... who has made a most careful study of it and its two parents.
"Perhaps, also you may obtain some further information, which you evidently need, from some of those who have seen the plants growing on a large scale during the past three years, and who have eaten the fruit fresh, and canned or in sauces, pies and in all other ways in which the Vaccinium Pennsylvanicum blueberry is used; but the verdict of the people is the one which stands. That verdict is final, and the editor of THE RURAL NEW YORKER will be obliged to accept it.
"Having been urgently invited to defend myself in the columns of THE RURAL NEW YORKER, I would here state that I am usually paid something like one hundred dollars per column for my words, and three to five times as much per hour for addressing an audience, but THE RURAL NEW YORKER will not have to pay a dime for this.
"I give you some facts: [and he goes on to discuss the other plants he has introduced and the awards they have won.]
"What does this all mean? Are the misstatements of THE RURAL NEW YORKER true, or do the growers and dealers know more than the city editors?
"If you wish for more on this matter please state the price to be paid, and if you do not wish to publish this article soon, I shall feel at liberty to sell it to other parties.
"I well remember the words of my peace-loving father as we worked on the old New England farm, just half a century ago: 'It is better to go around a bumblebee's nest than to step on it.' I have for these reasons made no reply to the very numerous misstatements of any kind, even the one that I had perfected a banana which would grow in New England. The man who is busy has no time to hunt fleas, and I refuse to be worked into any editorial scheme for increasing the circulation of THE RURAL NEW YORKER. Faithfully yours,"
(Signed) Luther Burbank
The Rural New Yorker commented:
The only present issue between THE R. N. Y. and Mr. Burbank is that regarding the botanical character of the Wonderberry .... Mr. Burbank offers $10,000 to anyone who will prove that his Wonderberry is a black nightshade. When we ask him to specify the proof which will loosen this $10,000 he dodges the issue and says "the verdict of the people is the one which stands." We wrote Mr. Burbank again, but he refuses to say what proof he requires. We will, therefore, leave it to the people, as he suggests.
Mr. Burbank claims that his Wonderberry came from crossing Solanum guineense and S. villosum. We asked a number of noted botanists if a plant with the parentage which Mr. Burbank claims would be considered a black nightshade. Among other replies, we have the following from Dr. N. L. Britton, Director-in-Chief of the New York Botanical Garden:
"In the matter of your inquiry relative to the 'Wonderberry,' I am unable to give you any first-hand information about this plant, because we have not grown it here until this year, and it has not yet developed flowers and fruit with us. Of course, it is a Solanum, of the affinity of Solanum nigrum, the black nightshade or garden nightshade, which runs into a very great number of races in nature, a good many of which have been regarded as species by different botanical authors. Solanum villosum is one of the best marked of these races, and may, perhaps, be better regarded as a species than as a race or variety."
(Signed) N. L. Britton
Britton had not, at this point, had his last say in the matter. Nor would the opinion he had expressed remain unchanged. The article continued:
A photograph of the plant is shown on our first page, with life size berries at Fig. 384. These berries have been sampled by a dozen people here. Only two would swallow after tasting, and no one wanted a second dose. Dr. Charles F. Wheeler is the expert botanist for the United States Department of Agriculture .... He examined these plants and then made the following report:
"In regard to the question of the identity of the so-called Wonderberry.. . I can say that I have carefully examined the plants growing here and cannot separate them from the plant named by Linnaeus Solanum nigrum."
Prof. L. C. Corbett, who has charge of the Government testing gardens at Arlington, also says:
"Concerning the so-called 'Wonderberry,' I will say that we have grown what we believe is the same thing that is now being advertised as the Wonderberry under the name of 'Garden huckleberry’ ... My personal belief is that the so-called Wonderberry is simply a plant that has been on the market for a number of years under the name of 'garden huckleberry' ….”
We wrote both the men named by Mr. Burbank. They request us to regard what they have to say as confidential, but it is evident that they know little about the Wonderberry, except what Mr. Burbank told them. As "the verdict of the people" will satisfy Mr. Burbank we give the following note from Mexico, where the Wonderberry has been fruited:
"Regarding recent articles referring to the Wonderberry sold by Childs' Seed House, I ... find that the plant is identical with a wild one that grows all over this part of southern Chihuahua near the water courses and commonly called here 'Yerba Mora."
The chief editorial of the same issue was also concerned with "Luther Burbank and that $10,000." After summarizing the lead article Collingwood went on to state:
Having met Mr. Burbank's challenge in this way we now call upon him to put up the $10,000 or state what further proof he demands.
There are some other matters connected with Mr. Burbank's "novelties" which we are ready to enter with him when he settles this $10,000 offer. We believe in sticking to one thing until it is settled. The Wonderberry, as we have tested it, is a worthless thing, and thousands who bought it on Burbank's statement will be disgusted. We are not discussing the quality of this berry or the merits of Burbank's other self-praised "creations." We will take that up in good time. Just now we are working on the botanical character of the Wonderberry, for the $10,000 offer hangs upon that point. We invite a careful reading of Mr. Burbank's letter. There may be public men who could write a more egotistical epistle, but we do not remember to have seen their remarks in print. Mr. Burbank tells us three times in this remarkable document that his words are very valuable .... Mr. Burbank says we must state the price we will pay before we can expect any more of his words. The laborer is worthy of his hire, and we promise Mr. Burbank $1,000 if he will tell us what proof he demands that the Wonderberry, sold by John Lewis Childs, is black nightshade. He is to pay this $1,000 to himself so as to be sure of it and send us only $9,000 of the sum he has offered. We think that Mr. Burbank, in dodging away from his offer, fails to take the good advice of his old father, for he has surely stepped into a hornets' nest.
The controversy that was stirred up by The Rural New Yorker was by then attracting considerable attention elsewhere. The St Louis Republic for July 28 reported, "It is a sad tale that comes to us ... concerning the 'Wonderberry' of Luther Burbank," and the writer went on to summarize the articles from The Rural New Yorker.
The Rural New Yorker, however, was just getting up steam in its campaign. Two weeks later Collingwood quoted a statement from "the wizard of electricity" Thomas A. Edison, crediting Burbank, "the wizard of growing things" with being "the nation's most valuable asset." The editor claimed to have no desire to challenge Edison's statement at that time, but pointed out that his notion of a valuable man was one who did not repudiate an agreement and noted that The Rural New Yorker still had not received the $10,000. In the same issue both Childs and Burbank were accused of deliberate fraud, and the papers that carried their advertisements were implied to be equally guilty. The editor also said he had been reliably informed that the wonderberry had been so successful that an advertising campaign costing $20,000 had been planned for the next year.
On July 31 The Rural New Yorker published a letter from John Lewis Childs:
"I have read your comments from time to time in THE RURAL NEW YORKER on the Wonderberry, and, assuming that you desire to be perfectly fair and just, and not to appear in the light of persecuting anyone, you will have no objection to publishing this communication in your next issue, and I submit it for that purpose.
"Your condemnation of the Wonderberry, on tests from small seedling plants in pots, just maturing their first fruit, is obviously unfair. The plants should have time to develop a good crop of berries, and the berries should have time to become ripe.
"When fully matured and ripe, the fruit is about as palatable as the tomato, possible a little sweeter, with some of the tomato acid; however, it is not in a raw state that the fruit is most useful. It is of the greatest value for cooking or canning in any form, fully equal to blueberries.
"As to the Wonderberry being identical with any wild nightshade, t would say, bring your wild plants here and compare them with our three-acre patch of Wonderberries and be convinced of the error.
"As to its being poisonous, come here and we will give you an exhibition of eating Wonderberries, ripe, green, foliage, stems and branches; in fact, any part of the fruit or plant in any stage of growth.
"I am familiar with the garden huckleberry, having grown it a few years ago, but never offered it for sale. The Wonderberry is an entirely different plant.' Yours very truly,"
(signed) John Lewis Childs
The Rural New Yorker replied as follows:
Mr. Childs does not quite get the point of the present discussion. He can readily see that we are not specially interested in what he grows for his own consumption. He will, we think, freely admit that we have a right to be interested in what he sells to our readers under the extravagant terms of praise which we copy from his catalogue. The facts are that seeds sold by Mr. Childs and plainly marked Wonderberry, grew into plants which have been identified by high botanical authorities as Solanum nigrum or black nightshade.
This Wonderberry was exhibited at the Boston Flower Show recently. Here are two newspaper comments:
"Luther Burbank, the 'wizard of the plant world,' received his first severe snubbing yesterday when his latest creation, the 'Wonderberry' or 'Sunberry,' was declared a failure. Thousands and tens of thousands of amateur gardeners all over the country have tried to cultivate the 'Wonderberry' without much success in this vicinity. Yesterday Mr. Burbank's new berry was labelled 'worthless' by the judges of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society."
Boston Sunday Post
"Luther Burbank's 'Wonderberry' came in for a 'roast' at the annual sweet pea show of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society .... On a table ... stood a plant labelled 'Burbank's Wonderberry. Probably Solanum nigrum. Worthless.' The horticulturists who passed judgment on this novelty in the fruit line declare that the plant is nothing but a wild potato, and that its fruit, so far from being valuable, is not only worthless, but positively deleterious. It has been grown in several greenhouses around Boston, and has been thrown out in several cases. At the Harvard Botanic Garden are specimens of the plant, and it was stated that several Italian laborers who had partaken freely of the fruit, which resembles a blueberry, were made ill by eating it. While a few of the horticulturists were inclined to think there might be something in the claim that it was produced by cross-fertilization of two African plants, the older ones, and those of greatest reputation, declare that the plant may be found growing wild in the woods and that it is altogether worthless."
We are informed that both plant and fruit exhibited at this exhibition were grown from seed obtained from John Lewis Childs.
Not satisfied with this, Collingwood also commented editorially in the same issue:
The latest development in the "Wonderberry" discussion is the letter from John Lewis Childs .... Mr. Childs is right in assuming that we desire to be perfectly fair and just. We will not, under any circumstances, persecute or misrepresent anyone. As we point out to Mr. Childs, THE R. N. Y. is not yet discussing the quality of the Wonderberry. We are quite willing that our people should wait until the berries are fully mature and ripe before deciding as to their value. We are now working upon this question—is the Wonderberry the same as the black nightshade? We offer proof that it is, and Mr. Childs will admit that botanical proof is the essential thing in this case, It is not necessary to mature the berries in order to decide what the plant is.
Since Mr. Childs insists that the quality of the fruit should be considered, we call attention to the extravagance of his catalogue claim, and the mild statement he makes when confronted with cold publicity. When offering the seeds at a high figure Mr. Childs said: "Its influence in an economic sense on the human race will be far-reaching, for it is entirely novel and a distinct and valuable article of food. " Now that the plant has been distributed and is ripening its fruit, Mr. Childs makes the following modest claim: "When fully matured and ripe the fruit is about as palatable as the tomato." This will be a rude awakening for those who have been banking on the great value of the greatest novelty "we ever had," However, we think Mr. Childs is at least partly right. The Wonderberry will influence the human race "in an economic sense." There will be mighty little demand for it next year, and as the result of Mr. Burbank's non-performance with his $10,000 bluff, thousands of dollars which would otherwise be spent for untested novelties will be saved for the people. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Childs will say in his next catalogue about the Wonderberry!
And as if this were not enough, seven letters were printed from readers, one a medical doctor, agreeing that the wonderberry was nothing more than black nightshade, that the whole affair was a fraud, and that The Rural New Yorker deserved the $10,000. A week later several more letters much to the same effect appeared under the headline "Do we earn that $10,000?"
On August 14 The Rural New Yorker pointed out that it had heard that 100,000 packets of wonderberry seed had been sold. A friend of the editor, a "gentle, kindly soul," in trying to take Burbank off the hook, suggested the possibility that as this plant was a hybrid it might be yielding segregates that were not the true wonderberry. This, if true, Collingwood noted, would put Burbank in a worse position, for he had always claimed that it came true from seed. The same issue contained the observation that the wonderberry was readily attacked by the flea beetle and the potato beetle and the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that perhaps the plant had value as a trap for these pests. The editor said he had by this time tested the plant and that this possibility was the only good thing that could be said for it. The "wonder" about this plant, he said, seems to be that "creator" and introducer should have shouted so loudly over such "a poor thing .... If the Wonderberry makes a good sauce a bushel of them might make Mr. Burbank saucy enough to back up his $10,000 bluff."
The issue of August 21 carried a letter from a reader who wrote to ask what to do with his wonderberries. He was afraid to eat them. The reply was that they were harmless and safe to eat although they had a sickening flavor, and the occasion was used to ask again about the $10,000. Nine more letters from readers appeared the same week, containing little new information, except that one reader had detected a difference between the wonderberry and the nightshade: that the berry of the former was dull and that of the latter was shiny.
The wonderberry again received editorial comment in the issue of August 28:
"Your assertions have done me untold damage and put me on the defensive all over the world."
—John Lewis Childs
This extract is taken from a recent letter written to us by Mr. Childs. We call his attention to the fact that if he is now "on the defensive" he was put in that position by his own words. What is he defending? The claims he made by word and picture when he offered the Wonderberry for sale. If our "assertions" were not true the character of the Wonderberry would quickly disprove them. Mr. Childs well knows that if his claims for the fruit had been reasonable and true all this talk about it would be the most profitable advertising he could have .... Even our friend Luther Burbank recognizes what this "defensive" position means. The San Francisco Call states in an interview with Burbank:
"Burbank admitted that he believed the berry had been too highly exploited by dealers ... He said they had made more than $20,000 out of its exploitation, while he had received less than a third of $1,000 as his share of the work."
Mr. Burbank seems to forget that his own words gave Mr. Childs the basis for the extravagant claims that were made. Burbank's figures take us behind the scenes and show how these plant creators rank with other toilers when it comes to handling the consumer's dollar. As we understand him, the Wonderberry brought him about $300, while Mr. Childs got $20,000. As we figure this, Mr. Burbank received one and one-half cent of the ultimate consumer's dollar.
In the same issue letters were published from readers in Burbank's home state agreeing that the berries were worthless. The next week Collingwood again quoted from the letter he had written to Burbank claiming that he had proved that the wonderberry was black nightshade and asking that "as an honorable man," Burbank pay the $10,000 or state what further proof he desired. However, Burbank had not replied.
The controversy took a slightly new twist on September 4. Under the headline, "Correspondence with John Lewis Childs" the following appeared:
On July 20 an "interview" with Luther Burbank was printed in The San Francisco Call, with this suggestive heading:
BURBANK BRANDS BERRY AS FRAUD
In this interview Mr. Burbank stated that "a lot of the common garden huckleberry is being distributed as the Wonderberry." We accepted this as a direct charge of substitution of seeds, particularly as Mr. Burbank refused to deny it in response to our letters. Mr. John Lewis Childs claimed while the Wonderberry was being offered that he was the sole introducer. We understood him to mean that the seed could not be obtained from anyone else. We therefore wrote Mr. Childs, telling him of Burbank's charge, and stating that our understanding was that all the seed that he offered came from Mr. Burbank. The following correspondence resulted:
Dear Sirs.—Replying to yours of the 7th I am glad to give you the information you desire regarding Wonderberry seed. All the seed I sold the past season was grown by myself here at Floral Park or supplied by Mr. Burbank from his place at California .… I have not had a seed or plant of the garden huckleberry on my place for four years, and seed of it is distinguishable from seed of the Wonderberry .... I also know it to be a fact that some other seedsmen received orders for Wonderberry seed and supplied the garden huckleberry for it, but I do not think this was done to any great extent, as but few seedmen had any stock of garden huckleberry.
Now if you were as fair in this matter as you would have your readers believe, you would publish some of the favorable reports on the Wonderberry as well as the unfavorable ones. According to my correspondents you have received many of the former….
You must know by this time that many of your assertions were erroneous and your editorial announcement that Mr. Burbank and myself have been deliberately defrauding the public was certainly broad and startling and has been duly noted. I am glad to say that the volume of reports we receive are mainly favorable, and many are very enthusiastic over it…. Many people have sent me fruiting branches of both the Wonderberry and the wild nightshade of their locality as proof that your assertions were untrue. There is no trouble in distinguishing the difference between them.
Yours very truly,
John Lewis Childs
The editor's reply followed:
Dear Sir.—I am obliged to you for the information contained in your letter. There is no question about the fact that seeds bought directly from you and sold as Wonderberry have produced plants which have been identified as black nightshade. Our correspondents state positively that the seed was bought of John Lewis Childs....
You say that we do not publish favorable reports of the "Wonderberry" and you claim that we have received "many" such. Thus far two such reports have reached us. You wrote one—which we have printed. The other came from a man said to have formerly worked for you, and who is now reported as growing "Wonderberries" for seed….
If you have been put "on the defensive" you must realize how you came to be there.
On the same page appeared a letter from B. T. Galloway of the United States Department of Agriculture who wrote that the wonderberry was nothing more than "a variant or horticultural variety of the black nightshade." The Rural New Yorker printed another letter from Childs on September 11:
Replying to yours of the 13th, in which you state positively that the wild nightshade has been grown from seed bought from me for Wonderberry, I wish to say that this is not possible. We know that the seed we grew ourselves and sold for Wonderberry was not nightshade, neither was there any nightshade mixed with it ....
You started out with the claim that the Wonderberry was only the worthless garden huckleberry. You have evidently abandoned that claim, but have not apologized to either your readers or Mr. Burbank for this misstatement. You subsequently claimed that the Wonderberry was identical with the nightshade, Solanum nigrum. You must now either abandon that claim or ignore the opinion of Dr. Britton of the New York Botanical Garden, the highest authority on plants in the United States. I have had Dr. Britton investigate the subject and he has sent me his report, which is as follows: [Dr. Britton lists 13 differences in botanical characteristics between the wonderberry and Solanum nigrum.]
Undoubtedly he has reported to you also, as he told me you had asked him for a report.
Dr. Britton might have gone further, and said that the fruit of the Wonderberry was three or four times larger than that of the nightshade, and of an agreeable quality. The fact is, a thorough investigation of the whole Wonderberry subject has been made by Dr. Britton and his associate professors, and no member of the Solanum family known to science is like the Wonderberry. All the professors ate the fruit of the Wonderberry freely, and pronounced it "fine," "good," "delicious," etc. One professor said it would be his garden fruit in the future ....
I send you with this a fruiting plant of the Wonderberry from my fields, grown in poor soil with full exposure where plants are set three feet apart and cover the ground completely. Note the enormous crop of handsome berries! Eat the berries, and if you do not call them "luscious," "delicious," "all right," or "good," you will be the only person who has tried them here and not made such exclamation.
In this whole affair it appears to me that you have lost sight of two important points for consideration. It is not at all likely that I would knowingly (as you say), offer a poisonous fruit with elaborate endorsements for the sake of making a few dollars which I do not need, and thereby ruin my business and reputation, which is founded on thirty-five (35) years of careful upbuilding. Again in striking at a man in a publication through a novelty he has introduced, he has no adequate defense, for he cannot put his side of the question before your readers and those who republish your words. He does not know them, and cannot reach them, and an injustice done this way must to a large extent remain an injustice.
The editor acknowledged the letter and went on to point out that Childs had not answered his question as to what seedsmen substituted garden huckleberry seed for that of the wonderberry nor had he supplied names of the "many people" who had sent him favorable reports on the wonderberry.
Next in the newspaper's columns came a letter from a botanist and physician, L. G. Bedell, who wondered what kind of "mental lapses... could have made it possible for a noted hybridizer, who has achieved the confidence and admiration of the public, to put forth such extravagant and utterly false economic claims for a worthless production." Bedell went on to claim that there could be no question that the wonderberry and Solanum nigrum are one and the same. "Any differences which one might be able to detect between a plant of wonderberry and a plant of black nightshade would be only such differences as any careful botanist may discover between two plants of the same species grown under widely different conditions."
In the editorial of this same date Collingwood noted that Childs "carefully refrains from repeating his claims about the wonderberry in his letter." Although there were differences between the wonderberry and the black nightshade, the editor admitted, the plants nevertheless belonged to the same species. The week was not to pass without mention of the $10,000, the occasion this time being a letter from a reader who inquired what they planned to do with the money when they received it. The editors replied that they didn't count their chickens until the eggs were hatched. On September 18 the weekly published the assertion, "THE R. N. Y. claims it has proved conclusively that the wonderberry is a black nightshade. We now rest our case, although we have an abundance of additional proof to offer." And on September 25 Burbank was reported still not to have replied to their recent letter. The wonderberry as such didn't get much attention on this date, but the Blunderberry was featured in the following article by "Ananias B. Good," which was reprinted from The Country Gentleman:
Some years ago I was trying to cross the rattlesnake plantain on the rum cherry, with a view to securing an antidote for delirium tremens. But my assistants became so inebriated working with these materials that they did many strange and unexpected things. They got several of my best kinds of crossing stock all mixed together, including my Scotch whisky vine and my German sausage tree. From these mixtures came all sorts of odd and useless results, many of which had no advertising value whatever; but amongst the lot was this Blunderberry.
The plant is something between a vine and a tree, and is very prolific when it blossoms. But as it blooms, in this country at least, only on the 29th of February, we get a crop only in presidential years. I offered it privately to two very gullible seedsmen to be brought out as the Leap Year Fruit, or Presidential Manna; but neither man had the ready money; and I find that in this plant-creating business it is best always to do business on a cash basis. In my failure to make an immediate sale, however, I committed the second and most serious blunder connected with the Blunderberry.
Some question has been raised as to whether my Blunderberry is a genuine creation or only a newspaper fake. I have decided, however, to dispose of this innuendo once and for all by offering a prize of a farm in California and an Ingersoll watch to anyone who will prove that anything like what I have described ever existed before. Furthermore, I am willing to outdo the original creator of such advertising specialties and will offer ten thousand dollars ($10,000) cash, cold coin, to anyone who will prove that the Blunderberry has any earthly use.
It has always been my misfortune to wake up too late when anything especially good was to come off. Had I got out my Blunderberry a few years earlier, or had I promptly introduced my seedless apple, I might have made a good thing. Now however, the field has been taken up by very similar, but really quite inferior, varieties.
Ananias B. Good
On October 2 the controversy was kept alive with a brief item, "Sorry—but it must be the same old monotonous report again—not a word and not a dollar from Luther Burbank. . .
On October 16, the weekly ran, "Burbank!!! If there is any smaller man in the country, will someone take a microscope and find him? We have proved that his 'wonderberry' is a black nightshade. We are now ready to show that the plant has been growing for years in Mexico, and that his 'Wonderberries' have been on sale in Mexican cities." The $10,000, of course, was mentioned. On October 23 the story was, "The 'Wonderberry'!!! It has now been pronounced a black night-shade by the botanists of the famous Kew Gardens, the Royal Horticultural Society of England and the French National Society of Horticulture ... . And yet Luther Burbank has made no move to pay up his $10,000 offer." Two weeks later The Rural New Yorker had not yet received a word or dollar from Burbank but had received 55 cents from a reader for a "Fake Fighting Fund," which the editor claimed was worth more to The Rural New Yorker than Burbank's $10,000. Burbank's silence, he pointed out, had been good for increasing the newspaper's circulation.
More fuel was added to the argument by the appearance of another article on the wonderberry accompanied with drawings of it, Solanum nigrum, and Solanum guineense in The Gardeners' Chronicle, which The Rural New Yorker quoted on November 20:
It is extraordinary that Mr. Burbank or any other gardener should have in cultivation these two Solanums, the supposed parents of the wonderberry, and still more so that he should think it worth while to cross them, seeing that they are nothing more than forms of S. nigrum, a cosmopolitan weed, generally considered to be poisonous. Assuming that Mr. Burbank had in his possession living examples of these two plants, it is extremely unlikely that as the result of crossing them he would obtain seedlings having all the good qualities attributed to the Wonderberry. Solanum nigrum is a very variable plant; there are greater differences between some of the forms of it than are evident in the two forms known as the British one and the so-called Wonderberry; for example, the Canadian form, known as Huckleberry, is quite different from either of them, and yet it is Solanum nigrum. Questions of nomenclature and botanical differences do not, however, matter much when the food qualities of a plant are under consideration; the proof of the pudding is in the eating, The Wonderberry might be a form of Solanum nigrum, and yet have edible fruit good enough to be made into jams, etc. To test it, therefore, we grew this summer plants of the Wonderberry raised from seeds supplied by Mr. L. Childs, and by the side of them we also grew plants of the Canadian Huckleberry, and some of the common British form of Solanum nigrum. When the fruits were ripe, some of each were sent for examination to Dr. M. Greshoff, one of the first authorities on vegetable poisons. His report, which will be published in full in the Kew Bulletin, is to the effect that all three forms contain poison (Solanin), the least poisonous being the British and the most poisonous the Wonderberry! Dr. Greshoff says that he cannot recommend the use of these fruits as food, because, although they may differ in the amount of poison they contain according to the conditions under which they may be grown, it will always be dangerous to eat them, and especially so for feeble children. Vegetable poisons vary in their effects upon different people; for example, the American poison Ivy, Rhus Toxicodendron, may be handled with impunity by many persons, including myself (I have rubbed its sap on my face without experiencing any ill effects), yet there are many who cannot touch the plant without suffering severe consequences.
In connection with this article the well-known botanist William Trelease, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, or as it is popularly known, "Shaw's Garden," of St. Louis, wrote to W. Watson at Kew Gardens. These unpublished letters are filed in the herbarium of the Missouri Botanical Garden and add some interesting sidelights on the story that had developed in the pages of the press. Trelease's letter of November 13, 1909, follows:
Dear Mr. Watson:
I have been much interested in the note in The Gardeners Chronicle of October Thirtieth, signed with your initials (though I do not know that they are yours) and I once more question if Mr. Burbank's wonderberry is really receiving justice.
I have no question as to the wisdom of caution in using plants reputed poisonous, or closely allied to poisonous specimens, and particularly if, as in this case, the seeds are included, and yet the generation is still living in which the tomato was shunned as most dangerous. The surprise to me was very great twenty years ago, or so, when I found that the Solanum nigrum of our midland prairies forms the constituent of huckleberry pies in the Chicago market and is to be purchased in the Chicago markets under the name of prairie huckleberry. I have never heard of any unpleasant results of its use, though physicians may know of such.
A few years ago, the larger-fruited plant, which is pictured in figure 129 of the Chronicle, was considerably exploited under the name of garden huckleberry, and I have no knowledge of any accidents from its use; and yet, such cases of poisoning may be known to physicians.
Quite apart from the claim of the promoters of Mr. Burbank's wonderberry as to its great economic value, is the question of its botanical character. Last spring, the editor of The Rural New Yorker wrote me, when writing other botanists, for an expression of opinion on this, but he evidently was not looking for conservative opinions, or those unfavorable to his point of view, and did not see fit to include my statement with those that he published (so far as I have seen).
I understand Mr. Burbank's claim to be that the wonderberry is a hybrid between Solanum guineense and S. villosum, and in his controversy with The Rural New Yorker his case essentially rests on its distinctness from any other Solanum. In a group of half a hundred or more forms as closely allied as those that the most conservative treatment relegates to S. nigrum, I tried to explain that an opinion on the specific character of individual forms is highly indiscreet, except from one who has made a special study of the group, but I do not think that most botanists today would call S. guineense ... the same thing as S. nigrum ... From both, the wonderberry differs in its more elongated, bluer and less glossy fruit,—characters which might well have been derived from the other assumed parent, S. villosum, which, unfortunately, I do not know. Whether or not the wonderberry is a hybrid, and whether or not, if it is, the parent species are those claimed, is apart from Mr. Burbank's claim of its distinctness.
To which Watson replied on November 25:
Dear Dr. Trelease,
I am afraid we in this country have come to look with suspicion on Burbankian "creations," such tarradiddles having been told with regard to some of them. Take the "Wonderberry" as an example. No man who knows plants can accept what has been said over Burbank's name with regard to the virtues of that plant, nor can any botanist acquainted with plant breeding accept the story of its origin. Of course Solanum nigrum is a very variable plant. I have been turning over to-day the many forms of it represented in our herbarium. There cannot be any doubt that both "Huckleberry" & "Wonderberry" are forms of that species.
(Signed) W. Watson
Trelease didn't get around to acknowledging this letter until February 17, 1910, on which date he wrote; in part:
By training and habit I think that I am really unusually conservative, but I cannot repress the feeling that the last chapter in the history of "Solanum nigrum" has not yet been written. Herbarium material is never very satisfactory with these things, and I am sure that although you might continue to consider them forms of one species (if that species is sufficiently extended to include S. guineense) I do not think that you could pick a branch of the wonderberry and our native nightshade here and call them anywhere near identical.
The Rural New Yorker of course, used the article from The Gardeners' Chronicle to ask "Mr. Burbank to close the incident by making good his bluff and paying the $10,000," and with a final reference to the $10,000, the issue was closed for the year. Nothing was settled as far as the principals were concerned, but the wonderberry was never to arouse much interest in the following years. The Rural New Yorker carried a brief item on October 8 of 1910 asking, "Who says 'Wonderberry' this year?"
The next important piece of evidence as to the nature of the wonderberry was not to appear until a few years later. In 1913 the German taxonomist Georg Bitter, who had spent many years studying solanums and was a recognized authority on the group, published an article in which he described the wonderberry as a new species, Solanum burbankii. After presenting a detailed Latin description of the plant, he stated that it might well be named after the man who introduced the plant, particularly so since some people were already referring to it under this name. (Burbank, himself, had called it Solanum burbankii, but it had never been formally so designated. It is unheard of for a taxonomist to name a plant after himself, but Burbank, as we have seen, was guided by no false modesty.) After comparing the new species with its supposed parents, Solanum guineense and Solanum villosum. Bitter concluded that it certainly could be no hybrid between them and that it was most closely related to Solanum nigrum. He added that he had never seen a Solanum from nature that resembled the wonderberry but that he suspected that someday someone would find the plant still growing wild near the neighborhood of Burbank's homestead. He found the taste of the berry insipid and a bit unpleasant and the numerous seeds such an annoyance that he could hardly recommend its cultivation. In his discussion Bitter pointed out that the fruit of the plant appeared as if it were covered with frost, somewhat like blueberries. It may be recalled that others had called attention to the difference in the surface glossiness of the fruits of wonderberry and the common nightshade.
Before concluding that it was then settled that the wonderberry was a distinct species, we should observe that Bitter was regarded by many taxonomists as a "splitter," that is, a taxonomist who felt there were more species in certain groups than other taxonomists—the "lumpers"—did. During his lifetime he described over a hundred new species in the genus Solanum, and more conservative taxonomists have failed to accept all of these as valid species. Thus the wonderberry could still be treated as nothing more than a form of Solanum nigrum, and it was so regarded by L. H. Bailey of Cornell University, who was during his lifetime perhaps the world's foremost authority on horticultural plants, in his Standard Cyclopedia of 1929.
In a more recent scientific contribution (1949) G. L. Stebbins, Jr., of the University of California and E. F. Paddock of Ohio State University briefly refer to the wonderberry:
The plants of this species [S. nigrum] found occasionally in the central and western [United] states are mostly the strain released by Burbank as the "wonderberry," This has rather large fruits, but is otherwise typical of S. nigrum. Its berries ... are edible and harmless. We find them to have a rather insipid flavor.
This particular paper is of great importance in that it makes use of chromosomes as an aid in classifying species of Solanum, and reference will be made to it in this connection later. These authors showed that the common nightshade of the eastern United States is Solanum americanum. In all probability it was this species and not Solanum nigrum that was being compared with the wonderberry in the pages of The Rural New Yorker, and it is certainly the plant that Britton described as Solanum nigrum in his letter to Childs.
Many questions are still unanswered. Is the wonderberry nothing more than the common black nightshade, Solanum nigrum (as W. Watson, Collingwood, Galloway, Bedell, Stebbins, Bailey, and countless letter writers to The Rural New Yorker would have had it)? Or is it actually a hybrid between Solanum guineense and Solanum villosum (following the view of Burbank, Childs, possibly Trelease)? To the questions we might add—are the wonderberry and nightshade poisonous or edible, and if edible, just how palatable are they? There may be little point in attempting a precise answer to the last question, since the decision is largely one of personal judgment. The answers to these questions are hardly of the utmost importance today but nevertheless it would be interesting to have answers.
The genus Solanum, as we have already seen, includes the potato, the eggplant, and other plants we shall hear about in the next chapter. Altogether there are probably more than one thousand different species in the genus, about half of the total number of species in the nightshade family. Classification within the genus has long been considered difficult, stemming in no small part from the fact that there are so many different solanums. Solanum nigrum, Solanum guineense, Solanum villosum, Solanum burbankii and the other members of this chapter's cast of characters all belong to a distinct group or section of the genus, known as Morella. The members of this section are distinct from other species of the genus in possessing the following combination of characters: all are herbs, with undivided leaves; most have white flowers with yellow anthers, and small, globose, somewhat juicy berries. Although well over one hundred species have been described in this group, some botanists, as was evident from W. Watson's letter quoted earlier, call practically all of them by the name Solanum nigrum. This was more true in the past than today, so the fact that a given plant was called Solanum nigrum by a botanist in 1900 does not necessarily mean that it belongs to that species. These early botanists may be excused somewhat, since the differences between species are often slight. The common name for this group of species, "nightshade," is an even greater source of confusion, for this name also has been used for a number of other plants. One of them, the extremely poisonous Atropa belladonna, the source of belladonna and atropine, is frequently called "deadly nightshade." The bad reputation of the nightshades of the Solanum nigrum group may derive, in part, from confusing them with Atropa. There is, however, considerable and quite good evidence that Solanum nigrum, using the name in the broad sense, is poisonous and that deaths have resulted from eating its berries. The genus has figured in at least one murder mystery, Deadly Nightshade by Elizabeth Daly. According to the story, a small child has been poisoned by eating the berries of "nightshade" and Gamadge, the detective, says to his secretary, "Let's see. Solanum nigrum Linnaeus [sic]. Also 'Black, Deadly or Garden Nightshade. Also Atropa Belladonna.' That's the poison, is it?" His secretary, who is looking the plant up in some book, says "Yes." (Of course, as we have just explained, Atropa belladonna is a completely different species—not the poison.) Fortunately, Gamadge is a better detective than botanist, and he eventually solves the case. The plot is much too complicated to go into, but it should be mentioned that the berries responsible for the poisonings are always spoken of as being black.
The actual facts about the toxicity of Solanum nigrum seem to be as follows. The green or unripe berries contain a poisonous alkaloid, usually referred to as solanine, which may produce "excitement, with tremors, followed by central paralysis, collapse, and eventually death." So the accusation that Burbank was offering a poisonous plant for sale to the public has some real basis. On the other hand, there appears to be fairly general agreement that the solanine disappears or decreases to nontoxic amounts as the berries ripen and that the ripe berries are perfectly harmless.
The reader may recall that W. Watson in The Gardeners' Chronicle stated that M. Greshoff would eventually give a complete report on the poisons in Solanum. A paper on some of Greshoff's phytochemical investigations did appear in the Kew Bulletin in 1909 but without adding details as to what was known about Solanum. His sudden death was announced in the same volume. The cause of death was not reported, and I have always wondered if he got too carried away with his work.
There is considerable divergence in the formulae given by chemists in the past for the poisonous substance in Solanum nigrum, and the suggestion has been made that there are several allied compounds in the berries. However, it also seems likely that the chemists examined different species, each working under the assumption that he was dealing with Solanum nigrum. In fact, L. H. Briggs of New Zealand has recently shown that different species of Solanum contain different alkaloids and with the continuation of his investigations the true story should emerge shortly.
There is no question, however, that many species of the Solanum nigrum group have been and may be used as human food without causing harm. No less an "authority" than Dioscorides, a Greek physician of the first century, mentions in his herbal, that the berries are edible. A more important use for the plant, however, was in medicine. According to Dioscorides, the herb "hath a cooling faculty," and can be used for various skin diseases, headache, burning stomach, and ear pain; it also "stops ye womanish flux" when it is applied as a pessary in wool, and "ye juice is necessary" to heal ulcers of the eye, for which it is prepared by "being kneaded together with ye yellow dung of barn hens & applied in a linen cloth." The herbalists of the Middle Ages found many uses for the plants of the Solanum nigrum group; some they adopted from Dioscorides, others had been unknown to him. An extract from the plants had some use in medicine in more recent time, chiefly for its sedative action and as an antispasmodic for bronchitis and asthma, but more efficient drugs are now employed. Probably the black nightshade's greatest claim to scientific fame lies in the fact that it was the first plant used for the artificial induction of polyploidy. In 1916 Hans Winkler, a German botanist, decapitated plants, and when the wound healed over, branches that contained twice the normal number of chromosomes developed from the callus tissue. This method of doubling the number of sets of chromosomes is little used today, having been replaced by chemical treatment.
Not only are the berries of the Solanum nigrum group eaten in many parts of the world, but the leaves have been used as a pot herb as well. A few years ago I found bunches of leaves to be a common item in Indian markets in Guatemala. One species, the so-called garden huckleberry, as we have already seen, was marketed for food use long before the wonderberry appeared on the scene. The well-known botanist Charles Bessey of the University of Nebraska tells the following story on himself in the American Botanist for 1905.
I was lecturing on the properties of the plants constituting the Solanaceae, and, as a matter of course, said that the berries of the black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) were poisonous. A young fellow from Fort Dodge, Iowa, spoke up and said that the people in his neighborhood made them into pies, preserves, etc., and ate freely of them. I answered him, as became a professor of botany, by saying that as it was well known that black nightshade berries are poisonous, the student must have been mistaken. That was the young professor's way of settling things, and this particular thing remained settled for him for some years. After a while, however, I learned that the people in central and western Iowa actually did eat black nightshade berries, and they were not poisoned either.
During the wonderberry controversy apparently it never occurred to anyone to attempt to repeat the cross Burbank claimed to have made, and this was not done until 1956, when Jorge Soria, who was making a study of certain tropical members of the Solanum nigrum group for his Ph.D. dissertation at Indiana University, undertook the project. Thirty attempts were made to fertilize the flowers of Solanum guineense with pollen of Solanum villosum, and the reciprocal combination was attempted an equal number of times. Not a single fruit developed from any of the crosses.
These results were not too unexpected. The two species have different chromosome numbers, and generally it is easier to secure hybrids between species having the same chromosome numbers. Hybrids between species having different chromosome numbers are not impossible, but when they are secured, with few exceptions, they are sterile. Solanum guineense has 72 chromosomes in its body cells. Solanum villosum, on the other hand, has 48 chromosomes. Other species are known that have 24 chromosomes and are known as diploids because they contain two sets of chromosomes. Solanum villosum thus is a tetraploid, and Solanum guineense is a hexaploid. Plants having an uneven number of chromosome sets in their body cells are usually sterile. If a hybrid is secured between a diploid and tetraploid it will be triploid and sterile or nearly so (incidentally, this is the genetic basis of the seedless watermelon). A hybrid between a tetraploid, such as Solanum villosum, and a hexaploid, such as Solanum guineense, would be a pentaploid, and probably quite sterile. One other fact about chromosome numbers should be mentioned, for it will be of importance later. Among closely related species, the diploids generally have the smallest pollen grains, the tetraploids slightly larger pollen grains, and the hexaploids the largest pollen grains. Stebbins and Paddock in the article mentioned earlier showed that this was true for certain members of the Solanum nigrum complex.
The fact that Soria did not obtain a hybrid is very suggestive but does not mean that obtaining one is impossible. However, shortly after the completion of his experiment, another important fact came out. After learning that Soria had been unable to obtain a hybrid, I decided that a restudy of Burbank's descriptions of the two parent species was in order. Most botanists preserve specimens of the plants with which they work by pressing and drying them. These are then deposited in herbaria where they can be studied by subsequent investigators. Linnaeus himself followed this practice, and anyone having a question about one of the species that he formally named can actually examine the dried specimen with which he worked. Burbank, however, was not a scientist and didn't preserve specimens, so all we have are his meager written descriptions of the plants. One item stood out when I studied his description of Solanum villosum. He described it as having green fruits at maturity. A check of botanical literature revealed that Solanum villosum always has orange or yellow berries, which had been pointed out in the letter from Watson to Trelease.
What species might Burbank have used? This could hardly be narrowed down by his description of its habitat since in one place he said the plant was from Europe and in another from Chile. There is one species, however, with greenish mature fruits, Solanum sarachoides, a native of South America, which moreover was established in California before 1900 and could have been available locally to Burbank. This species is a dwarf, procumbent annual that matches Burbank's description of "Solanum villosum," Furthermore, Stebbins and Paddock had pointed out that Solanum sarachoides, a diploid, had frequently been confused with Solanum villosum. That no one, other than W. Watson, had caught Burbank's mistake is somewhat surprising. Certainly Bitter, with his knowledge of Solanum, should have been aware of the discrepancy between Burbank's description and the true Solanum villosum.
In view of Burbank's incorrect identification of one of the plants it would seem well to examine his description of the other. This plant, according to him, is a "rather heavy shrub" which "produces large berries in clusters that stand upright" and that in "some varieties are nearly as large as cherries." This is hardly much of a diagnosis, but—although a botanist would not class the plant as a shrub—there can be little doubt that Burbank was indeed speaking of the plant that has generally gone under the names Solanum guineense and garden huckleberry. (The true huckleberry is related to the blueberry and belongs to an entirely different family.) Burbank listed this plant as a native of Africa and others have so considered it, but in reality, as was pointed out by Bitter in 1913, nothing is known about its ancestral home. It was early known in Europe, and Linnaeus in 1753 chose to treat it as a variety of Solanum nigrum, and applied the name Solanum guineense to another species. In 1793, however, Lamarck, considering that the garden huckleberry deserved to be ranked as a separate species, referred to it as Solanum guineense. Thus the Solanum guineense of Linnaeus and the Solanum guineense of Lamarck were two different plants. Since two plants cannot go under the same name, Soria assigned in 1959 the name Solanum intrusum to the garden huckleberry. After the appearance of his paper, K. J. W. Hensen of Holland wrote that other botanists had already recognized that Solanum guineense was an illegitimate name for the garden huckleberry and that Allioni in 1774 had proposed the name Solanum melanocerasum for this species. That name, therefore, as pointed out by H. Heine in the Kew Bulletin in 1960, is the scientific name that must be employed for the garden huckleberry, although for the sake of simplicity the name Solanum guineense will be used for the remainder of this article. The name Solanum melanocerasum is a good one for this species because the fruits are black and not unlike a cherry in shape and size. Burbank more than once mentioned that the berries of this plant are practically inedible, and I am inclined to agree with him. Nevertheless, it has had a long history as a minor food plant, and is still handled by some seed companies in the United States. This plant has often been honestly confused with the wonderberry, and probably Childs and Burbank had some justification for their claims that some seeds sold under the name wonderberry were actually seeds of the garden huckleberry.
|Fruits of the garden huckleberry, a plant sometimes confused with the wonderberry and claimed by Burbank to he one of its parents.. This photograph and that of the wonderberry, which is reproduced below, are shown at approximately the same magnification, just slightly less than natural size. Note the dull cast of the wonderberry fruits, a characteristic of the species.|
The wonderberry, so far as could be determined at the time of this writing, is no longer being grown in the United States. It would, of course, have been an obvious advantage to have living material for comparison with the putative parents. Fortunately, however, dried specimens are available for study. Plants of the wonderberry grown at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1909 had been preserved in the herbarium. A letter to the Bailey Hortorium at Ithaca, New York, revealed that they also had dried specimens, which Bailey had grown there in 1924. Through the courtesy of the curators of the herbaria at these institutions the specimens were secured for study. Although dried specimens are not as satisfactory as living ones, particularly in this group of plants, a great deal can still be learned from them. At first glance, it was apparent why so many people, including some botanists, had thought the wonderberry was nothing more than the common nightshade. There was a striking resemblance, but there were also slight differences. When the pollen of the wonderberry was examined, it was found to be the size of that of other tetraploids in this group. Solanum nigrum is a hexaploid. Solanum guineense is also a hexaploid and Solanum sarachoides, which as we have seen apparently was the other plant Burbank had used, is a diploid. Although a cross between a hexaploid and a tetraploid, such as Solanum villosum, would most likely produce a sterile hybrid if a hybrid could be obtained at all, a hybrid between a hexaploid and a diploid would produce a tetraploid, and since this would have an even number of sets of chromosomes, such a plant might be fertile. Once I had this much information to back up my idea of what the parents of the wonderberry had been, and since plants of both species were at hand. I decided that it would be a simple matter to attempt hybridization to see if a wonderberry could be obtained. Although I was not sure how a plant having the characters of the wonderberry could be derived from Solanum guineense and Solanum sarachoides it was at least worth the effort, since, needless to say, by then I was quite curious about the real origin of the wonderberry.
With greenhouse plants of Solanum guineense and Solanum sarachoides I then began my hybridization experiments. Reciprocal crosses were made using four different strains of the former species and two of the latter. In a few days it was apparent that with Solanum guineense as the female parent the cross was unsuccessful, for the pollinated flowers dropped from the plant, but every pollinated flower that had Solanum sarachoides as its mother had enlarging ovaries. In a few more weeks these had developed into mature berries, and every one was found to contain well-developed seeds. The fact that the cross was successful only with Solanum sarachoides as the female parent was of interest since Burbank had claimed that he secured his seed only with "Solanum villosum" as the female.
|*CybeRose: Burbank secured one fruit.|
However, he claimed to have secured only one seed* after prolonged effort, whereas all of my crosses readily took and gave many seeds. These seeds germinated and produced extremely vigorous plants. They flowered abundantly but it soon became apparent that they were setting few or no fruits. Toward the end of the season some fruits were produced, but, with one exception, they all were completely lacking in seeds. Thus, although the plants were not absolutely sterile, they were mighty close to being so. It was apparent from the morphology of the plants and from their chromosome number that they were true hybrids.
One other fact was quite clear. This hybrid was not Burbank's wonderberry. This plant was unlike any Solanum known, although it resembled Solanum guineense more closely than it did Solanum sarachoides, which might be expected since the former species had furnished three sets of chromosomes to the hybrid.
It was conceivable, although unlikely, that a plant more like the wonderberry might appear in subsequent generations. With this in mind, I grew a second generation during the next summer from the one fertile berry secured from the first generation. Seven plants were secured, and although they showed slight variation from plant to plant, they were remarkably similar to the first-generation hybrids—with one exception. Six of the seven plants were fertile. Moreover, these plants were not tetraploid, but had twice as many chromosomes as the tetraploids. Spontaneous chromosome doubling had occurred. A third generation was also grown, which produced more plants very similar to the original hybrids, but fertile. Although the wonderberry had not been recreated, in effect a new species of Solanum had been brought into existence through hybridization. From the standpoint of the welfare of the world, nothing could be less needed!
It was sometime during the course of these experiments that I had been going through a seed catalogue of Gleckler's Seedmen of Metamora, Ohio. Gleckler has regularly offered a number of unusual and interesting items. I always faithfully read the accounts of the new offerings and that year (1957) I found myself reading about "Gsoba":
An annual domesticated blueberry from South Africa. quite similar to the California Sunberry grown by the great Luther Burbank 50 years ago. In colonial days of Africa farm women used Gsoba for tarts, jams, etc. Bluish black fruit stains like mulberries. In some areas of South Africa Gsoba is grown commercially, using it for jam... It appears Gsoba would be adapted also for making fermented beverages.
Naturally, I put in an order for seeds, although I did not for a minute think that the gsoba could really be the wonderberry. In due time the plants reached maturity, and they were certainly different from any nightshade that I had previously grown.
The plants had one very striking feature: the mature berries were a deep blue rather than black and had a whitish bloom on them. I faintly recalled Bitter's description of the wonderberry and turning to it, sure enough, he mentions that the berries are "opacae fere purnosae," in his Latin description, and later in his discussion of the species he states that the berries are "wie bereist aussehend" and compares them with certain species of blueberries. The fact that two plants have similar fruits doesn't mean that they belong to the same species, but a detailed comparison of the plant with Bitter's description showed remarkably close agreement in flower and fruit characters, and only very minor disagreement as far as the leaves were concerned. Since I had previously seen herbarium specimens of the wonderberry, perhaps I should have recognized immediately that gsoba and the wonderberry were the same species. However, I soon found when I made my own herbarium specimens of gsoba that some of the most distinctive features, such as the color of the fruit and the blue line on the corolla lobes, become very obscure upon drying. At long last the wonderberry appeared to have been rediscovered, but since no one had noticed that it was lost in the first place, it was hardly an excuse for a big celebration. Moreover, I hardly had enough berries to ferment a brew for the occasion.
The rediscovered wonderberry ( Solanum burbankii).
That it should come from Africa was really not too surprising, for Burbank's seeds had been sold all over the world. I wrote Gleckler to see if he could give me more information about the source of the plant and he replied that I should write to J. Leslie Parkhouse, Wooderkoogte Nursery, at Utrecht, from whom he had originally received his seeds. Accordingly, I wrote, and after acknowledging my letter, Parkhouse went on to say,
|*Gsoba or msoba—take your choice.|
Now about msoba,* around the years 1911, or 1912 when purchasing cacti leaves from Luther Burbank, asked him to send a packet of his Sunberry Seed. Which he did. The seed arrived. Was planted. The plants identical to eye with the Silver leafed msoba of S.A. . . . At the start of the century after the long war, when people returned to their farms or ranches there was often not much in the way of fruit. Farm women cooked tarts—etc. with the silver leafed variety. It coloured like mulberry. Was pretty sweet.
This most interesting letter immediately raised the possibility that Burbank's wonderberry was nothing more than a native South African species. In view of the fact that species of Solanum are difficult to distinguish even by botanists, however, I was inclined to accept with reservation Parkhouse's claim that the native species agreed to the "eye" with the wonderberry. One needs only to recall the many statements of botanists in 1909 that the wonderberry and Solanum nigrum were identical. Then, too, it must be remembered that fifty years had elapsed between the time Parkhouse had first grown the wonderberry and the writing of his letter to me. But then after another restudy of Bitter's description of Solanum burbankii and the msoba or gsoba plants I was inclined to think that Parkhouse was on to something, for there could be little doubt that the two were the same species.
I feel that Burbank did actually attempt to produce a hybrid between Solanum sarachoides (which he called Solanum villosum) and Solanum guineense. However, the chances for errors in Burbank's "experiments" were enormous. Walter Howard has written that "as far as I could see he kept no written account of the parentage of his crosses. His experiments were mostly uncontrolled. He rarely took the time or trouble to emasculate the flowers before applying pollen or to protect the hand-pollinated flowers from receiving foreign pollen through the aid of natural agencies such as wind and insects." Since Burbank quite likely grew a number of other Solanums in his garden, anyone of them could have been the male parent of his hybrid, if indeed, he ever secured a hybrid. His experiments hardly appear to have been sufficiently controlled to prevent the possible introduction of a foreign seedling.
Since Burbank imported plants and seeds from many parts of the world, Africa included, for his various breeding programs, it is not unlikely that seeds of an unfamiliar Solanum could have been introduced into his garden. That a seedling or seedlings of one of these might have come up in his "hybrid" Solanum plot is possible. Such a plant would have been recognized by Burbank as being different from its "parents" and would have been saved. This, to my way of thinking, is the most logical explanation of the origin of his "new" species. It may be recalled that this is similar to what Bitter suspected, although he felt that the plant would eventually be found growing wild in California. Another possibility, however, needs to be mentioned. Perhaps msoba represents direct descendants of the wonderberry.
The preceding account was written nearly four years ago. I have kept hoping that something new would turn up that would provide a nice ending. Nothing startling has, but I do have plants grown from seed sent to me by J. D. Chapman from a savannah woodland in Nyasaland that are identical to the msoba from Utrecht. Whether msoba was ancestor to the wonderberry or the wonderberry was ancestor to the msoba is still not definitely established, but the new sample makes the former hypothesis seem more likely. Thus, although the ending is not as neat as I might like, two things stand out—the wonderberry was not plain old black nightshade, Solanum nigrum, nor was it the hybrid that Burbank claimed it was.
Oh yes, we tried some of the berries of msoba in a pie. While they don't quite measure up to Childs' claims, they are certainly not as bad as The Rural New Yorker would have had us believe.
More on the Sunberry