Proc 26th Ann. Meeting Soc. Prom. Agr. Sci. pp. 31-40 (1905)

What Is Horticulture?

Presidential Address before the Society for Horticultural Science.
(The two societies met in joint session for hearing Presidential addresses.)

By Prof. L. H. Bailey, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, N. Y.

The members of this Society are interested in horticulture from its so-called "professional" side,—from the point of view of teaching and research. In this sense, the subject has been born, in this country, within the past thirty years; So far as I know, the person who has had the longest continuous teaching service with horticulture as his leading profession is W. R. Lazenby, who, now in the prime of life, occupies a seat before us. He began his professional work in 1874 in Cornell University. The States that first gave horticulture a distinct and separate place in teaching and research are Michigan, New York, Iowa, Ohio and Massachusetts. I do not know what teaching institution first established a full chair in which horticulture was the only subject in the title, but there are few such chairs even yet. The first Experiment Station to engage a "horticulturist" was probably the State Station at Geneva, New York, and the lamented E. S. Goff was the person chosen. In most of the early professorships, horticulture was associated with botany, entomology, forestry, or landscape gardening. I make the above remarks not for the purpose of recording history—for I have made no careful survey of the field,—but only to call attention to the newness of these subjects in the curricula of our colleges. We are forcibly reminded of the novelty of the subject from the fact that we just now record the first death among our veteran colleagues.—the death of Professor Budd, which occurred on the 20th of this month. Professor Budd was a pioneer in a pioneer country. He made us to enlarge our horizon and helped to open the gates of promise.

As a college subject, the origin of horticulture has been various. In the early days, it was associated oftenest with botany and split off from that subject. One of my old teachers told me, as a student, that "botany and horticulture" was a good professorship because I could gradually magnify the botany. When I was asked to take the chair of horticulture at the Michigan Agricultural College, a prominent botanist who is now known personally or by reputation to every one of you, said to me that he did not see "how under heaven any man can take such a professorship as that." My dear old preceptor Asa Gray was surprised, and I think, disappointed. When I sought to minimize the disgrace of it by saying that a horticulturist needs to be a botanist, he replied, "yes, but he needs to be a horticulturist too."

Latterly, horticulture has been correlated with agriculture rather than with botany. It has taken hold of affairs and is no longer a "chair,"—for the professorial "chair" typifies the old sit-still method of teaching.

Agriculture has divided by fission into a half dozen or more organisms, and each of these now show signs of further segmentation. If pigs, cows, horses, machinery, underdrains, and field crops lack pedagogical and scientific harmony, what shall we say of orchids, onions, oranges, greenhouses, canning factories, cover-crops, plant-breeding, landscape gardening and cold storage? What is horticulture?

Although horticulture touches affairs at every point, it is primarily a biological subject. It rests on a knowledge of plants. Its fundamental relationship, therefore, is with botany. Its biological phase is botany; its business phase is agriculture. Botany, however, has declined until recently to extend its sphere to subjects that come too near to real human affairs, and therefore has left a very large part of its domain uncultivated. Horticulture has seized some of this territory. It should hold the territory.

Botany has not been alone in holding itself aloof from subjects that are made unclean by serving a direct purpose in the lives of men. All academic subjects have considered themselves worthy in proportion as they serve no concrete purpose. We even yet speak of "pure science," as if some science were impure. It is curious that subjects sought by human minds and hands are not "pure" when they serve those minds and hands in the affairs of life. Howbeit, a working and practicable knowledge of plants must be had by those who engage in the developing of the plant industries. A few days ago I saw a professor of botany in a commercial greenhouse, asking the florist many questions about the growth and behavior of plants. I asked him why. He replied, "Those men know more real plant physiology than we do." Those men were horticulturists.

I have not the least desire to confine any person's efforts to so-called "applied science." On the other hand, I have no desire to confine it to "pure science." I object to the classification of the ideas and to what this classification connotes. All knowledge is knowledge.

Botany must escape its integuments of the laboratory and find part of its sphere in the field and the garden and on the farm. This is precisely the trend of its development today. Yet so great practical knowledge of plant-growing is required for this work that it would seem to demand the skill of one who is trained as a plantsman as well as an investigator. Horticulture would seem to stand in some such relation to botany as electrical and other engineering stands to physics. The engineer must be somewhat of a physicist, but he must also be an engineer. The multiplicity of botanical subjects and the intricacy of subject-matter are increasing with great rapidity. There will be an opportunity for several teaching and investigational professions in the realm now known as botany. I should not be surprised if we should give up the term botanist as designating the holder of a professorship. There is now a tendency to return to unit courses in biology, with special biologists employed in various phases of the subject. Of these special biologists, the horticulturist will be one of the remoter groups, connecting plant biology with the affairs of men.

But even so, there must be horticulturists and horticulturists; and I doubt whether the term horticulturist will long persist in highly developed schemes of education and investigation. There will be fruit-growing horticulturists, flower-growing horticulturists, nursery-growing horticulturists, and others. The manufacturing interests will be segregated, such as canning industries, manufacture of fruit wines and juices and the like, as dairy manufacture has now been separated from animal husbandry.

I once edited a cyclopedia of horticulture. I do not know that it has left any impression on the mind of the select public that chanced to hear of it; but the one strong impression that it left on my mind is its heterogeneousness. The most perplexing problem in its preparation was what to include. No doubt the reader is impressed with what might have been omitted. My own conclusion was that we should never see another large cyclopedia of horticulture; for such a work marks an unspecialized age.

Just how the field will divide itself in the Colleges and Experiment Stations it is yet too early to predict. As the reason for its division rests on its touch with affairs, and as affairs differ in every great geographical region, I see no reason why it should divide everywhere into identical parts. In New York we need a professor of pomology, another of plant propagation; another of greenhouse business; another of ornamental gardening; another of seed growing, drawing from both agriculture and horticulture; another of fruit manufacture.

Horticulture is contributing greatly to the national wealth. It supplies much important food; but these foods are to a large extent non-necessities, and their increasing use is a good criterion of the development of our civilization, for the progress of the refinement of civilization is marked by the transferal of articles from the class of occasional luxuries to the class of essentials. Practically all the fruits, particularly in temperate climates, belong to the class of non-necessitous foods; yet their consumption is increasing with enormous rapidity. All the growth of florticulture and of ornamental gardening—largely the work of one generation stands in a very intimate relation to the broadening sensitiveness of our lives. The number of fruit and forest trees grown in nurseries in 1900 was nearly twice as great as in 1890. In 1900 there were more than sixty-eight millions of square feet of glass in florist's establishments in the United States. The increase of the staple food stuffs must bear a fairly definite ratio to the increase of population, but the increase in nearly all of the horticultural products is conditioned on our attainment of relative ease and the growth of ideals.

Horticulture also represents intensive tillage and high-class effort at farming. In 1900 the earning power of land devoted to vegetables and small fruits in the United States was four times as great as the average earning power of all other crops. The perfection of tillage is the pot-growing of the florist, who produces as great results from a handful of soil as the general farmer produces from a bushel. It is no mere accident that one of the staple phrases of our language is "as rich as a garden."

How the subject of horticulture shall be divided and classified is of far less importance than what the subject shall include. Neither is it important what a man is called who does a certain piece of work. What is to be done in that field now indefinitely covered by the American term horticulture, in that domain of plant knowledge as related to the lives of men?

Everything is to be done, for everything is yet unfinished. There is not one subject that we can say is even fairly completed. We need to know the bases of every existing condition in which plants grow. The conditions under which plants grow will be new and perhaps revolutionary in time to come, for wholly new plant industries are no doubt to develop. Our very civilization depends on man's relation to plants, and a good part of this relationship falls in the domain of the horticulturist.

The opportunities of the horticulturist are just beginning to be recognized. Some years ago a person who had been made a horticulturist in one of our institutions wrote me asking whether I knew of any subjects that could be investigated and what he would better do. I told him that he would better quit. It is needless to say to this company that we have not yet lived up to our opportunities. Most of our work has been of a temporary and superficial character. Real horticultural research is only begun. The field is concreting itself and trained men are coming to the work.

On the biological side, the concern of the horticulturist is twofold: to make two blades of grass grow where only one grew before; to make each blade better then its parents were. Our definite and methodical work has been directed chiefly towards the former cud. We have tried to increase production by augmenting the capabilities of the soil, and by extra care of the plant. We shall now attempt similar effort by making better plants. Of course there has been remarkable progress in varieties of plants; but for the most part it has been fortuitous and unpredicted. The new plant-breeding is more important than the old insistence on fertilizing of the land. But we are even yet mostly concerned with the production of concrete varieties, following the age-long conception that species and varieties are entities. Very likely we shall find that the best plant-breeding is that which produces gradual improvements inside the variety, until a variety shall develop into something better than itself. We seem now to care more for something that we can name, than for something that we can measure. We shall work out such constants that each grower will know how to increase the efficiency of a crop, as well by breeding the plant as by manipulating the soil. The grower will not need to rely solely on a professional maker of new kinds. Plant-breeding will be valuable in proportion as it gives every man the power to breed plants for himself.

We need a new plant physiology,—a broader, keener, more vital body of knowledge than the laboratory alone can give us; for physiology is the science of life, and this life relates itself to every condition in which the plant lives. It includes ecology and ethology and other special fields. Part of this new knowledge will come from the botanists, part from the horticulturists, and there will be no clear line of demarcation. Suppose the botanists give us the fundamental histological and physiological data: we horticulturists will work them out in plant forms that will help the race in its progress.

In working out these practical breeding problems we will also be reconstructing the route by which the vegetable kingdom has arrived at its present stage. The plant-breeder and the animal-breeder are exponents of the organic evolution idea. They participate in the progress. They see the pageant. Working forward for definite ends, they also work backward to the beginning. I know of no persons who so much need to be philosophers. Inevitably they will contribute much to the discussion of evolution, for these discussions must tend to emerge from speculation into definite experiment.

Up to this time, the evolution of plant forms has been essentially undirected by man. If such marvelous transformations have taken place in cultivated plants under such conditions, what may he expected under the explicit, effort of the future? We have every reason for saying that the progress will he remarkable. We shall work on the species that we now cultivate, and we shall extend our effort to species not yet domesticated. All plants are ours. All forms, all colors, all perfumes, all flavors shall appeal to the senses of man and we cannot tell what shall be.

But the horticulturist's work is not alone biological. He touches the art-impulse. Rob the race of the art-suggestions that it has had from plants and you rob it of its architecture and its decoration. Once, furniture was not a part of the home—only mere rude benches and chairs. Decoration was not a part of the home. Nor was music—the Greek ideal of music was music in the fields or in the meeting places, rather than in the homes. Books were not a part of the home. Every generation sees some great addition to the depth and meaning of the home. Plants are a part of the developing centralized idea of home. I do not mean plants in vases alone, nor cut flowers alone,—but plants in gardens, outdoors and indoors in their proper places as books are in their proper places on library shelves. Every perfect home has its library; so in time it must have its garden,—a room, perhaps out of doors, in which plants grow.

Last summer I drove through a beautiful well-wooded road in south-eastern New England. At one place the rear of a house stood close against the highway, presenting no unusual point of interest to the passer-by. I drove in at the gate, and behold! a garden such as poets dream of! And in truth it is a poet's garden. An open space of velvet lawn, sides piled high with lusty growth of tree and shrub and herbaceous plants, in the distance wide sweep of farm lands, at its back the fine old English residence set with pleasant vines-this was the picture. I thought I had never seen so choice a bit, and yet there was nothing over-wrought or high-strung in it. I saw many beautiful plants, but the effect of the whole was supreme. It was as truly a picture as if the image of it had been put on canvas. If you have read "In Veronica's Garden," or "The Garden I Love," you will know what garden I mean.

This garden illustrates a fundamental difference, I think, between the English and the American garden. The Englishman's garden is well nigh as essential as his house. It is like an extra room to the residence. It is for the family rather than for the public. It therefore works itself into the developing consciousness of children, and garden-love becomes as much a part of the person as books and furniture and music do. An English teacher recently inspected our nature-study work. "What surprises me," she said, "is that you need to do this work. The English child loves nature as if by instinct." The American garden is likely to be all in the front yard. It is usually the look-at-me kind. It is made for the public to see. This may contribute to public spirit and civic betterment, but it loses in originality and vitality and in homefulness.

One-third of our city and village improvement work s horticulture. Another third is architecture; and the other third is common cleanliness and decency. We are gradually developing towards social community. All public and quasi-public property belongs in a very real sense to every one of the people who come into relationship with it. It is your concern and mine how the streets look, and what is the aesthetic character of church-yards, highways, railway property, open spaces, vacant lots. It s the work of the artist to touch all these common-places into life; but the horticulturist must furnish part of the materials, and if he rises to his opportunities he himself will be in some important sense an artist.

As a teaching profession, horticulture has two great phases: it must teach the things of the art and the craft; it must aid in bringing the child into relations with its environment. In all these generations we have been training the reflective arid passive faculties. We shall now train also the creative and active faculties. It is the development of the active and constructive faculties that makes the farm boy so effective when he goes to the city. The other day I showed a minister (he was city trained) my garden. He saw the tools. He remarked "What a great advantage you have. I cannot do a thing with my hands,—except to play golf." The coming school will deal with live objects and real phenomena. It will not be confined within walls. Growing plants will be prominent among these objects. The child will be trained to use his hands, to plan and to reason from actual problems. Then he will be resourceful and will have power; for no man who lacks power is an educated man even though he knows all languages and has the finest academic manners.

I have now suggested the three phases or sides of the field that we know as horticulture:

I.—The biological or science side.

  1. Physiology of plants, in its broadest phases—relations to the place in which the plant grows and to the artificial conditions imposed upon it.
  2. The modification of plants,—acclimatization, breeding, evolution.

II.—The affairs side.

  1. The manipulation of plants,—grafting, pruning, training.
  2. The rearing and sale of plants and plant products as a commercial enterprise.
  3. The manufacture of certain plant products,—the canning, evaporating and similar industries.

III.—The art and home side.

  1. The love of plants.
  2. The love of gardens.
  3. The use of plants to heighten the beauty and meaning of the landscape.

It would be violence, no doubt, to draw conclusions from such a rambling discourse as this; but if I were asked what is the domain of the horticulturist, I would reply in some such way as this: the horticulturist is the man who joins hands with the plant biologist on one side and with affairs on the other, and whose energies are expended in every way in which plants appeal to men.