The American Fruit Culturist, Ch. 3 pp. 24-27 (1855)
John J. Thomas


The tendency is more or less common with all plants, when successively produced from seed, to depart from the character first stamped upon them. These departures give rise to new varieties. In their native forests, many trees and plants do not exhibit these changes, either because they are slight and obscure, or in consequence of the inflexible nature of the species. With others, varieties are conspicuous; examples of which may be seen in the White Spruce, a part of the trees presenting rigid, erect branches, in contrast with the drooping aspect of others; in the American Elm, the branches, in rare instances, being as pendant as the weeping willow; in the more brilliant glow of red flowers on some trees of the Red Maple; and in the diversity of size, form, and flavor of the wild plum of the woods.

*The distinction between species and varieties should be well understood. A single species, or original, distinct, individual plant, often, includes many varieties. All the varieties of one species, are from the same original plant; the thousands which have been named of the single species, the apple, are but a small portion of the myriads which have been actually produced. Successive plantings have given us sorts as different in size as the Monstrous Pippin and the minute Lady Apple; or as remote in flavor as the harsh and astringent Hewes Crab, and the rich and honied Bough. But widely different as these may be, they can never pass the boundary of the species—an apple can never be changed to a pear, a cherry to a plum, nor a gooseberry to a currant.

This tendency to vary is increased as plants are removed from their native localities; and in an eminent degree by cultivation. Planted in gardens, and subjected to high culture, repeated and successive sowings often develope striking changes from the appearances which for previous centuries had remained unchanged. By a constant selection of seeds from the best, a gradual improvement on the original is effected. Most of our finest fruits, doubtless owe their existence to this improving process.*

"If," says Downing, "we sow a quantity of seed in garden soil, of the common black mazzard cherry, we shall find that, in the leaves and habit of growth, many of the seedlings do not entirely resemble the original. When they come into bearing, it is probable we shall also find as great a diversity in the size, color, and flavor of the fruit, though only a few, perhaps only one, may be superior to the original species.

"Exactly in proportion as this reproduction is frequently repeated, is the change to a great variety of forms, or new sorts, increased. It is likely, indeed, that to gather the seeds from the wild mazzard of the woods, the instances of departure from the form of the original species would be very few; while if gathered from a garden tree, itself sometime cultivated, or several removes from a wild state, though still a mazzard, the seedlings will show great variety of character.

"Once in the possession of a variety which has moved out of the natural into a more domesticated form, we have in our hands the best material for the improving process. The fixed original habit of the species is broken in upon, and this variety which we have created, has always afterwards some tendency to make further departures from the original form. It is true that all or most of its seedlings will still retain a likeness to the parent, but a few will differ in some respects, and it is by seizing upon those which show symptoms of variation, that the improver of vegetable races founds his hopes."

While a few of the seedlings from such improved variety, may become still further improved, a far greater number will probably approach towards the original or wild state. The more highly improved the fruit, the greater the difficulty to find one of its progeny which shall excel or equal the parent. In ten thousand seedlings from those high-flavored apples, the Swaar and Esopus Spitzenburgh, it may be quite doubtful if any shall equal in quality those fruits themselves, while most may fall considerably below them.

The improvements effected in former ages were doubtless the result of accident, as the ancients were ignorant of the means for their systematic accomplishment. The greatest progress in the art made in modern times, was effected by Van Mons in Belgium, and Knight in England.


Van Mons, who directed his labors chiefly to the pear, produced many new and excellent varieties, by a constant and successive selection of the best seedlings. He first made a large collection of natural stocks, or wild pears, choosing those which, from the appearance of the wood and leaf, he had reason to believe, would be most likely to produce the best fruit. As soon as the first of these bore, he selected the best, and planted the seeds. Selections were again made, from the first of these, and so on in continued succession; the best and soonest in bearing were uniformly chosen. He thus obtained fruit from the eighth generation; each successive experiment yielding an improved result on the preceding. At the fourth generation many of the fruits were good, several excellent, but a smaller number still bad. He had, in the early part of this series of experiments, no less than eighty thousand trees; hence in selecting from so large a number, his chance for fine sorts was far greater than from a small collection; and hence too the reason why, after seven or eight improving generations, he had obtained so many good varieties. In the early stages of his operations, he found "that twelve or fifteen years was the mean term of time, from the moment of planting the first seed of an ancient variety of the domestic pear, to the first fructification of the trees which sprung from them. The trees from the second sowing, yielded their first fruit at an age of from ten to twelve years; those of the third generation, at an age of from eight to ten years; those of the fourth generation, at an age of from six to eight; and those of the fifth generation at the age of six years. Van Mons, being actually at the eighth generation, has informed me that he has obtained several pear trees which fruited at the age of four years."* When his seedlings were at the age of three or four years, he was able to judge of their appearances, though they had not as yet borne; such only were taken for further trial, as exhibited the strongest probability of excellence. It is hardly necessary to remark that in all these trials, the young trees were kept in the highest state of cultivation.

Van Mons maintained that by selecting and planting the seeds of the first crop on the young tree, the product would be less liable to run back to the original variety, than where the seeds were taken from the fruit of an old bearing or grafted tree; and to this practice he chiefly ascribed his success. The many instances, however, of fine seedlings from old grafted sorts, throw a shade of doubt over this theory.