Memoirs of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture volume 1, Appendix Selections 12-18. (1808)


Change of Seed not necessary to prevent degeneracy; Naturalization of Plants;
important caution to secure permanent good quality of Plants.

By Joseph Cooper, of Gloucester county, New Jersey.

Cooper's Point, April 17th, 1799.

Respected Friend,

Kind Providence having placed me in a situation of life which obliged me to procure a living by industry, and that principally in the agricultural line, it has caused me to be a strict observer of the works of nature, with respect to such parts of the vegetable creation as have come under my particular notice, and have been greatly embarrassed at the opinion very generally entertained by farmers and gardeners, that changing seeds, roots and plants, to distant places, or different soils or climates, is beneficial to agriculture; such opinion not agreeing with my observations or practice. This induced me to make many experiments on that head, all of which, in more than forty years' practice, have operated to prove to my satisfaction, that the above opinion is not well founded; and if so, must be extremely prejudicial to agriculture, as it turns the attention of the husbandman from what appears to me one great object, viz. that of selecting seeds and roots for planting or sowing, from such vegetables as come to the greatest perfection, in the soil which he cultivates.

What induced me to make experiments on the subject, was, my observing that all kinds of vegetables were continually varying in their growth, quality, production, and time of maturity. This led me to believe that the great author of nature, has so constructed that wonderful machine, if I may be allowed the expression, as to incline every kind of soil and climate to naturalize all kinds of vegetables, that it will produce at any rate, the better to suit them, if the agriculturists will do their part in selecting the most proper seed. In support of this position, I will subjoin a few facts and experiments, out of a great number, which have all combined to prove the above, to my satisfaction.

In or about the year 1746, my father procured the seeds of the long warty squash, which have been kept on the farm ever since, without changing, and are now far preferable to what they were at first. Our early peas were procured from London, the spring before Braddock's defeat, (1756,) and have been planted successively every season since, on the same place. They have not been changed, and are now preferable to what they were when first obtained. The seed of our asparagus was procured from New York, in the year 1752, and since that time I have not planted a seed, except what grew on my beds; and by selecting the seed, from the largest stalks, I have improved it greatly.

A complaint is very general, that potatoes of every kind degenerate, at which I am not surprised, when the most proper means to produce that effect is constantly practiced; to wit, using or selling the best, and planting the refuse; by which means, almost the whole of those planted are the produce of plants the most degenerated. This consideration induced me to try an opposite method. Having often observed that some plants or vines produced potatoes larger, better shaped, and in greater abundance than others, without any apparent reason, except the operation of nature, it induced me to save a quantity from such only, for planting the ensuing season, and I was highly gratified in finding their production exceed that of the others, of the same kind, planted at the same time, and with every equal advantage, beyond my expectation, in size, shape, and quantity; by continuing the practice, I am satisfied that I have been fully compensated for all the additional trouble.

A circumstance happened respecting potatoes, which may be worth relating: a woman whom I met in market, requested me to bring half a bushel of sweet potatoes for seed, the next market day, which I promised to do; but going through the market on that day, previous to her son's coming for the potatoes, I observed the woman selling such as I had brought for her; when the boy came, I asked him the reason they wanted potatoes for seed, while they were selling their own. His answer was, that his father said, if they did not get seed from me, once in three or four years, their potatoes would be good for nothing. Query—if he had used the same means in selecting his potatoes for planting, as I did, whether he would have profited by changing with one who used the other method?

In discoursing with a friend, who lived at a great distance from me, on the above subject, he mentioned a fact in favour of changing seed. Some radish seed which he had from me, produced radishes preferable to any thing of the kind ever seen in that neighbourhood, which was near 100 miles distant: but in two or three years the radishes degenerated, so as to be no better than what he had before. I asked his method of saving his seed. He said he had no other radishes in his garden, and when they had pulled what was fit for use, let the others go to seed. I then told him my method, viz: As soon as the radishes are fit for use, I dig up ten or twelve of those which please me best, as to colour, shape, &c. and plant them at least 100 yds. from where any others bloom at the time they do; this, I informed him, was the best method I knew of to improve any kind of vegetables, varying the process agreeably to their nature. I asked him if he thought I should be benefitted by exchanging with him? His answer was, he believed I was the best gardener.

In or about the year 1772, a friend sent me a few grains of a small kind of Indian corn, the grains of which were not larger than goose shot; he informed me by a note that they were originally from Guinea, and produced from eight to ten ears on a stock. Those grains I planted, and found the production to answer the description, but the ears were small, and few of them ripened before frost. I saved some of the largest and earliest, and planted them between rows of the larger and earlier kinds of corn, which produced a mixture to advantage; then I saved seed from stalks that produced the greatest number of the largest ears, and first ripe, which I planted the ensuing season, and was not a little gratified to find its production preferable, both in quantity and quality, to that of any corn I had ever planted. This kind of corn I have continued to plant ever since, selecting that designed for seed in the manner I would wish others to try, viz: When the first ears are ripe enough for seed, gather a sufficient quantity for early corn, or for replanting, and at the time you wish your corn to ripen generally, gather a sufficient quantity for planting the next year, having particular care to take it from stalks that are large at bottom, of a regular taper, not over tall, the ears set low, and containing the greatest number of good sizeable ears, of the best quality; let it dry speedily, and from this corn, plant your main crop; and if any hills should miss, replant from that first gathered, which will cause the crop to ripen more regularly than is common: this is a great benefit.

The above method I have practiced many years, and am satisfied it has increased the quantity, and improved the quality of my crops, beyond the expectation of any person who had not tried the experiment. The distance of planting corn, and the number of grains in a hill, are matters many differ in. Perhaps different soils may require a difference in both these respects; but in every kind of soil I have tried, I find planting the rows six feet asunder each way, as nearly at right angles as may be, and leaving not more than four stalks on a hill, produces the best crop. The common method of saving seed corn, by taking the ears from the crib or heap, is attended with two disadvantages; one is, the taking the largest ears, which have generally grown but one on a stalk. This lessens the production; the other is, taking ears which have ripened at different times, which causes the production to do the same.

A striking instance of plants being naturalized, happened by Col. Matlack sending some water melon seed from Georgia, which, he informed me by letter, were of superior quality: knowing that seed from vegetables, which had grown in more southern climates, required a longer summer than what grew here, I gave them the most favourable situation, and used glasses to bring them forward, yet very few ripened to perfection; but finding them to be as excellent in quality as described, I saved seed from those first ripe; and by continuing that practice four or five years, they became as early water melons as I ever had.

Many admit the importance of a change of seed, from the fact of foreign flax seed producing the best flax in Ireland; but when it is considered that it is the bark of the stalk only that is used in Ireland, and that this is in the best perfection before the seed ripens, the argument fails when applied to other vegetables.

For many years past, I have renewed the whole seed of my winter grain, from a single plant which I have observed to be more productive, and of better quality than the rest; a practice, which I am satisfied has been of great use; and I am fully of opinion, that all kinds of garden vegetables may be improved by the foregoing methods, particular care being taken, that different kinds of the same species of vegetables are not in bloom at the same time, near together, as by this bad practice, they mix and degenerate.*

I am sensible the foregoing will meet with great opposition and contradiction, but as an experiment is safe and easy, I hope it will induce persons of more leisure, ability, and observation than myself, to make trial, as a mean of improving the agriculture of our country.

Such is the sincere wish of thy friend,


*The above remark of an observant, practical agriculturist, has so often been confirmed by the observations of others, that no doubt can be entertained of its accuracy. The fact is one of the most powerful proofs of the sexual doctrine of plants, and is strongly confirmed by the familiar example of the certain degeneracy of squashes and pumpkins if grown near gourds; the latter even communicate an emetic quality to their neighbours. In like manner, melons will degenerate if planted near squashes or pumpkins. A case is recorded in the law reports, of an action which was brought against a gardener near London, in the reign of Charles 2, for selling cabbage seed instead of cauliflower seed.—On trial it appeared, that both had been planted near each other, by the purchaser, and to this error, the gardener contended the degeneracy of the true seed which he had sold, was owing. But he lost his cause in consequence of the prevailing ignorance of the sexual doctrine of plants: posterity however has rescued his memory from the imputation of a cheat. The fact quoted by Mr. William Young in page 43, may be adduced as another argument in favour of the propriety of attending to the caution of Mr. Cooper.
    This fact, and the consequences of it, show that lawyers should attend to agricultural and horticultural knowledge, as well as to mere professional acquirements. In an agricultural country, it is peculiarly incumbent on them: both for the purposes of justice, and their personal advantage.