39th Annual Report of the Ohio Horticultural Society (1906)
SEED SELECTION
By F. H. Sperry

The subject as announced on our program, namely, "Seed Selection," is quite broad and susceptible of several interpretations, according to the kind of spectacles through which we are looking, and the objective point in mind. We take it however, that before this body it is the improvement side of the subject we should attempt to pursue.

From the beginning of time man has been in possession of the seed bins of the earth. God in his infinite wisdom ordained it thus, and as we multiplied and progressed we found it necessary to increase our food supply and it has ever been, and presume it ever will be a struggle to keep this supply a little in advance of the immediate demands. In order to do this man's ingenuity has been taxed many times to the uttermost, and because of these demands man commenced the cultivating of plants of various kinds at various times and under many varying conditions of soil, climate and method. Improvement came slowly, and in fact method and variety in many places remain the same today that they were in the dim past.

But in proportion as the light of knowledge and science grew, improved methods gave improved or modified varieties that kept pace with the increasing demands. Improvement and advancement however, was quite moderate until about the beginning of the Nineteenth Century and until about that time nearly all the vegetable, farm and flower seeds cultivated were such varieties as had been brought from the old world by our ancestors, and as our doors were thrown wide open to all comers from whatever source, with our vast territory embracing almost every variety of soil, climate and condition, it is quite plain that the then living generation had at hand ready made the foundation for vast improvement.

This opportunity our Horticulturist, Market Gardener, Seedsman and Farmer laid hold of with a will, and as the demand increased the march of progress supplied the demand as it was created. In making these improvements, many changes were brought to the notice of the few careful observers, due in many cases to changed environment, for the leaven of the new country was causing almost imperceptibly, new forms to spring into life. And those who were instrumental in bringing them about were not able to explain the new condition of affairs. By degrees partial order has been brought out of this apparently chaotic state, and the names of such men as Hoovey, Bull, Downing, Allen, Thornburn, Henderson, Gregory, Livingston, Leaming, Riley and very many others who were pioneers in the last century, have helped to mark an epoch that will leave its impress for all time to come. Their services have created for them living monuments, that are pleasant to look upon, elevating to the mind, teeming with suggestion, and excellent padders of the pocket books of those who followed.

The results of careful and judicious selection are perhaps yet in their infancy, and the possibilities in store for the future, when backed by the proper combination of soil, climate, cultivation, and a proper use of one's intelligence, seem almost unlimited. At this point we would suggest that where an experiment is to be made would select seed from individual plants that show some variation from the general type and from that proceed with the experiment on whatever line the subject in hand indicates, as it will be found well nigh impossible to separate seed and plant selection if improvement to any marked degree is to be expected.

As to the origin of our cultivated plants little is definitely known about the greater part, though they are supposed to be deviations from the wild form and we think with good reason. To illustrate, we would call attention to a couple of experiments made on wild plants. M. Vilmorin, of Paris, commenced an experiment on the wild Carrot in 1832. In this experiment he developed the White Belgian Carrot now in common use in four generations.

Do not understand me to say that in this length of time there was no reverting back to the wild form. On the contrary there were but few the first generation that gave evidence of much promise, each generation, however, was more encouraging, and in the fourth generation only about ten per cent. were worthless, and from the remainder the type became thoroughly fixed and established. You will note that in this experiment two very remarkable changes took place in the habit, namely the changing of the plant from an annual to a biennial, and from a hard woody worthless root of an obnoxious weed to that of a well formed fleshy root of much value in a commercial way.

The Parsnip offers the second example of what has been done by Selection and Cultivation. Prof. Buckman, a distinguished English student in agriculture, did for the Parsnip what Vilmorin did for the Carrot, only with more marked and rapid success. In a change of soil Prof. Buckman developed the Student Parsnip from the seeds of the wild Parsnip in five generations.

A number of prominent examples where the wild form has been forced to show quite radical changes in a few generations in both vegetables and flowers might be cited, but so long as the experimenters on these lines are in the main men of comparatively small means and are from force of circumstances compelled either to limit their field of action and observation to Standard varieties that are in common use, or at best devote but a small amount of time and energy to this most fascinating line of study, we must be ready to take advantage of any variation that may develop in those plants with which we are constantly associated.

We would now cite a few examples in our cultivated plants where careful selection, judiciously applied, has left its mark.

In more recent times we see on our markets the plain, double and extra double curled parsley, all flavored alike, but showing to a high degree the influence of the Selecting process, in the much crinkled form of its leaves, that has added materially to its beauty and value.

In the thirty years of careful and intelligent selection as applied by the late Mr. J. S. Leaming, who gave to the farmer of the United States the first dent field corn of uniform shape and color of ear and habit or growth—a fixed and distinct type—was followed by Mr. James Riley with a White sort some fifteen years later. To these men we owe much. Since then quite an army of experimenters have taken up the subject, and spent a vast amount of time and labor on the development of Corn, the king of all grain, until today we have numerous well developed and fixed types which put to shame the corn of a century ago, and marks a well deserved score for intelligent selection. But by no manner of means should we call a halt and rest with our laurels, as perfection has not yet been attained.

Another experimenter of no mean ability, our own Mr. A. W. Livingston, who has passed to his long home, has left a legacy in the way of reputation that is world wide. By his long and close observation and careful selection he raised the Tomato from a very insignificant vegetable or fruit to a prominence nearly, or equal to that pet of Lord Raleigh, the Potato, and its place in the market of our country is hardly second to any other garden product. All his numerous new Tomatoes were from accidental variation, and the same can be said of many other new sorts since introduced.

The underlying cause of such variation is unknown, but it is supposed to be from accidental hybridization; let that be as it may, the fact remains, there was a variation, and it was by observing, and taking advantage of this variation and applying the principles of selection that we have so many fixed types, and scarce ever see a tomato of the old wrinkled and knurley type, and the habit of growth in this plant has undergone nearly as great a change as the fruit.

The sugar beet is another very excellent example of the power of selection along right lines, which under the skillful managment of Louis de Vilmorin and later by Vilmorin Andrieux & Co.. and many other foreign experimenters, as well as Prof. Tracy, of this country, has been the subject of some thirty-five years' selection, in which its quality of richness in sugar and shape has become fixed and constant, and the per cent, of sugar has been raised from about ten to over twenty per cent., a very valuable consideration to both the producer and the manufacturer.

The well known "Blanche Ferry" Sweet Pea offers another good example, it being the result of selection covering some twenty-five or more years on a shallow but fertile lime stone soil.

There is another side of the subject to which we would like to direct your attention, that offers a very fertile field for investigation. It is thought by many gardeners and growers that mature or immature seed has a marked influence on the plants produced particularly as to time of ripening. Plants from immature seeds are said to ripen their fruits much earlier than from mature seed. Goodale and Goff are of the opinion that some of our early sort of vegetables may have originated in this way and Goff's experiments with the tomato indicate that a gain of ten to fifteen days may be had by using green or immature seed. C. L. Allen, a cabbage specialist, rejects large plump seed for stock seed, as such seed is apt to produce leaves instead of heads.

Another feature is age. Many growers prefer cabbage seed two or three years old for the same reason that Allen rejects plump seed. Quite a number of our customers buy their Melon. Cucumber and Squash seed at least one year ahead of the time they expect to use it for the reason that they believe old seed, and the older the better, so long as it has not lost its germination, will produce more fruit to the same amount of vine and in less time. We are led to believe that immature seed will be found less vigorous and in many cases if followed persistently would result in producing much smaller fruits with a tendency to degenerate. Investigation along this line, however, would no doubt prove interesting and valuable to the right man, with the proper subject and under favorable conditions.

The commercial and planting value of many varieties to the grower and seedsman in this as well as in foreign countries depends largely on the purity of the strain, and the care exercised in producing it.

How was it grown? Where grown? Was it well isolated? When and how was the stock seed selected? What the nature of the soil? Its geographical position, etc., etc., are all factors that at once enter the mind of the prudent buyer, as upon one or all depends the degree of success that will crown his efforts. Many foreign buyers recognize the importance of these points and will not place orders until thoroughly satisfied. In this connection would say that the grower and his standing will be carefully inspected as well as his product. Hence the importance of knowing the history of the stock you grow, its habits, its needs, and if the variety in hand is one whose form has not been thoroughly fixed, it becomes doubly important, else how can the grower rogue and select so as to maintain type of fruit and form of plant.

As a matter of fact we must not expect under all circumstances and conditions to reach the highest possible results. As it is only under the most favorable surroundings here that perfection, so to speak, can be attained.

The foregoing examples serve to show what has been done, and indicate in a faint manner what is in store for the wide awake, intelligent experimenter. In my opinion the fields of Horticulture, Floriculture, and Gardening, even along the most advanced lines have only just been entered, and the lines open to improvement have practically no limit, and that, too, along lines that are not alone fanciful, but that from an economical standpoint would prove profitable. We, however, must not become discouraged if advancement is slow. In many cases it will be slow, very slow, as cited in the establishing of the Leaming Corn, the Tomato, Sugar Beet, and on down through the long list of cultivated plants. It is a matter of history that many of the common plants bear today the same general description given them generations ago. Yet in many there has come a change, on this line or that, which has given us new types in some varieties, increase of size in others, better form, quality, smoothness, length of fiber, height of stalk from flat to round or round to flat, etc., etc., as the form or character of the variety and the demands indicate, and all in a great measure due to selection.

Climate and soil have had their influence and will continue to stimulate or retard, to diminish or enlarge: heat, cold, moisture and drouth will all have to be taken into account by the wise experimenter in determining his methods as each or any of the different conditions or combinations may effect the growing plant in such manner as to produce a variation that to the close observer offer an opening for a wedge with which he may force another of nature's locks, and thus throw open a new field and ere long present to the world an improved strain, or a new form of some old and possibly neglected sort of merit.

There is another very important side to the selecting of seed or plant that must not be lost sight of if we hope to make progress and lay siege to the all but impenetrable wall that nature has thrown around her secrets, namely, the necessity of a well-defined idea of type desired. It is considered by the seedsmen, plant breeders, and florists, one of the greatest factors in developing new strains. When the type is determined upon, adhere rigidly to it, year after year, in making your selection. This may seem to make slow progress but if followed persistently, will surely in time bring results and the length of time will he long or short as the experimenter has shown care and judgment in determining the type and subject.

For God said. "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which s upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed, to you it shall be for food."