The American Journal of Horticulture and Florist's Companion, 5: 274-276 (May 1869)
By Robert Manning, Salem, Mass.

All of our standard pomological authors, in considering the subject of producing new varieties of fruit, invariably begin by reference to the theory and practice of Van Mons.

Van Mons was born at Brussels in 1765, and, at the age of fifteen, sowed in his father's garden the seeds of perennial flowers, roses, and other shrubs, with the design of observing the development, the successive generations, and the variations which might thus be produced. To these he soon added seeds and stones of the well-known fruits, and remarked, that, of all his young plants, the pears were those which least resembled their parents. He searched the gardens, nurseries, markets, and neighboring provinces, to confirm or rectify his first ideas on the causes of the variation of fruits and flowers. When Mr. Van Mons had arrived at the age of twenty-two, the pivot of his theory was fixed; and this was the degeneracy of the seeds of fruit-trees in a state of variation. This degeneracy he regarded as a consequence of the age of the variety which bore it.

Having arrived at this conviction, Mr. Van Mons said, by sowing the first seeds of a new variety of fruit-tree, there should be obtained trees always variable in their seeds, because they can no longer escape from this condition; and which are less disposed to return towards a wild state than those produced from seeds of an ancient variety. And as those which tend towards a wild state have a less chance of becoming perfect, according to our tastes, than those which are in the open field of variation, it is in the seminary of the first seeds of the newest varieties of fruit-trees that we should expect to find more perfect fruit, according to our tastes. The whole theory of Van Mons, as stated by Mr. Poiteau in his memoir on the subject, is contained in the above paragraph.

But the question which concerns us is, What is the value to-day, with the light which the experience of Van Mons and others has thrown upon it, of this theory as a guide to the production of improved varieties of fruit? Here the first point that strikes us is the long time required for a fruit to pass through successive generations, which Van Mons estimated, in the case of the pear, at from forty to fifty years for five generations in the average of his experiments; though with other fruits, especially stone-fruits, an excellent quality was obtained in much less time.

Another point, which it is believed has been heretofore almost entirely overlooked, is, that Van Mons was not consistent with his own theory; for instead of sowing the seeds of new wild varieties, as is generally supposed, Mr. Poiteau expressly states, that, at first, Mr. Van Mons was unable to procure the seeds of varieties very recently procreated: the seeds which he was obliged to use to commence his experiments with were obtained from ancient varieties. Of the truth of this statement, we have evidence in the Queen of the Low Countries Pear, which Van Mons extolled as "very large, very beautiful and good, and, without question, the most perfect of pears," but which is only a reproduction of the Spanish Bon Chretien, described by Quintinye nearly two hundred years ago. The experiments of Mr. Dana, Dr. Shurtleff, and others, have shown the incorrectness of Van Mons's principle, that seedlings from a tree in a state of variation always degenerate. In adopting this principle, Van Mons appears to have been guided by the experience of Duhamel and Poiteau, who planted the seeds of the best table-fruits without producing a single one worthy of cultivation.

A difficulty which meets us in the attempt to judge of the results of Van Mons's method, is, that, of the many good pears sent out by him, we have no means of knowing which ones were raised by him, and which were acquired from other sources; for Van Mons, like all lovers of fruit, was a collector as well as an originator. Besides this, from the multiplicity of his other cares, the thrice-repeated removal and breaking-up of his nurseries, and the carelessness of gardeners, much confusion existed among his trees, and, along with the many varieties of high excellence for which we are indebted to him, a still greater number of inferior or worthless kinds have been received; and, after having given much consideration to the subject, I do not know of a single pear of which I can say with certainty that it is the legitimate result of Van Mons's method, and could have been produced in no other way.

I would not be understood to disparage or depreciate the obligations we are under to Dr. Van Mons. I do not forget that the Beurre d'Anjou, to which, as fairly as to any other pear, may be applied the praise which he lavished on the Queen of the Low Countries, a far inferior variety, is not improbably a seedling of his; nor that the Urbaniste was gained by one of his friends and disciples. Nor would I overlook the faith and zeal with which he persevered in an experiment occupying a period of time that would have appalled an ordinary man, and encountered difficulties and obstacles that might well have discouraged him. Still more do we owe him for the effect which his attempt — the first ever made to produce new varieties upon scientific principles — has had in stimulating inquiry into those principles, and causing the production by others of many of our most valuable fruits.