J Hered 1918 9: 112-116
Requirements Necessary for Encouragement of Plant Breeding Heretofore Misunderstood—Environment
Usually Not Suitable for Really Constructive Work—Breeder Should be in Close Touch with His Plants

Agricultural Explorer in Charge of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, Bureau of Plant Industry, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C.

WHY cannot we realize the conditions necessary for the encouragement of plant breeding and go ahead and create them? Seen from a perspective which reaches back to the establishment of the experiment stations in this country, it appears to me that we have misunderstood these requirements. The environment of the State Experiment Station is as far as possible from what could be considered ideal for the plant breeder, and I am confident that one reason why, today, with all that has been published about plant breeding, we have so amazingly few practical breeders is because we have misunderstood the requirements of a plant breeder.

The laboratory in a big station building which may have the name "Plant Breeding" on the door is not a place where plant breeding is done. It is a place where the subject is discussed and the laws of heredity are disputed and new principles are worked out, but it is not the place of origin of new varieties of practical importance to the human race. Why should we not recognize in the equipment of the plant breeding laboratory that plant breeding is an early morning occupation, and that the materials with which the breeder deals are of the most fleeting nature—that, like the appearance and disappearance of a comet in the sky, the simultaneous flowering side by side of two plant species is often the event of a plant breeder's life time, and that, unless he is on hand and fully prepared to make immediately a host of crosses, only one of which perhaps succeeds, he never gets another chance at it, and years pass, in all likelihood, before another breeder succeeds in getting the plants in bloom together. In the hybridizing of trees and shrubs, this is peculiarly true. The making of crosses is a very different kind of work from that of the investigator of alcoholic specimens or the microscopic studies of lower plant life.


As I look over the field, it would seem as though the plant breeders who, under the right environment, would have produced new plants of the greatest value, have been forced by the difficulties which surrounded them, to enter those statistical and microscopic phases of plant breeding which can be done in the indoor laboratories, equipped with microscopes and slide rules. I am not in the least discounting the value of this work, but it does seem as though, by the expenditure of a small amount of money, we might make what would appear to be the most attractive places imaginable for men with a real fondness for plants—places from which would be coming year after year new hybrids and selections of the greatest value to the horticulture and agriculture of the world.

It has been my good fortune to he associated in a helpful capacity with several plant breeders in this country, and, as I look over their surroundings, it seems to me that they have one thing in common. They live among their plants—not a mile or two away from them.

I remember the remarkable place of C. P. Gillett, which he called the Barren Hill Nursery, and which he had transformed into a little paradise of fascinating plants at Nevada City, Cal. I once visited that great plant enthusiast John Rock, of Niles, Cal., and found his little office in the midst of a big nursery. I visited last winter the remarkable place of Doctor Nehrling, near Gotha, Florida, where those wonderful variegated Caladiums originate, and where hosts of other new plants are growing and being studied. There is that wonderful place of Chas. T. Simpson, at Little River, Fla., where, although little breeding is being done, thousands of new plants are being tested. The Marquis wheat, I was told by an old friend of the late Doctor Saunders, of Ottawa, originated in the Doctor's little garden quite near his house, One of the most fascinating places in all Canada I found to be the home of Mr. A. P. Stevenson, of Morden, where the Russian apples first succeeded and showed their possibilities for Canada.

Mr. T. A. Sharpe's place at Salmon Arm, B. C., has the fascination of an intimate plant breeding station.

The small branch station at Talent, Oregon, with its twenty acres of pears, is an ideal place, and it is in the quiet mornings in that charming little nursery that Doctor Reimer has discovered the blight resistance of the Chinese pear species, P. ussuriensis and P. Calleryana. Edward Simmonds, in our Plant Introduction Garden at Miami, working in the still mornings there, has produced remarkable hybrid annonas and selected and improved papayas. The striking work in the improvement of the Egyptian cotton which has made possible the extensive development of this crop in the Imperial Valley was done by Kearney, Cook and others in a little temporary field laboratory at Somerton, Arizona. Dr. Byron D. Halsted, of New Jersey, with whom I was associated for years, has been hampered always, it has seemed to me, by the fact that his plants and his laboratories were, until recent years, far apart, and he had to drag his specimens back and forth, and it required an expedition to get to his garden by daybreak. What charmed me when I first knew Luther Burbank was the fact that he had around his doorstep and in his backyard the plants he was breeding, and, that, weak physically as he was, he could work among his plants in the early morning before the people who came to see him were up. This was before the factory and publication bureau built a building and thoroughly commercialized his work. I wonder if he does not often look back to the quiet pleasure of those mornings.


Sometimes it seems as though everything were against the plant breeder—every tendency in modern times. The commercial emoluments are few, for as soon as he tries to commercialize his new hybrid, he is obliged to develop a selling organization and has to step into quite another world—that of glowing exaggeration and the trials of employing many people, both of them activities which crowd out the time for concentration which the breeder requires, and, as they come in the spring, often interfere seriously with his breeding work. The result is he is generally tied up with some other organization, which, because of expense involved, gives him a room in a big building and a corner of some field used for other purposes; or, and this is even worse, he is put in charge of a botanic garden and a lot of professional gardeners, or an office full of busy clerks who insist on being directed, or a classroom full of boys who are interested in anything but plants and who delight in worrying the professor. The breeding work is a side issue, in any case-the teaching or directing or advising is what he is paid for. Yet how little the real breeder needs! A few acres of land, a skilled devoted man to help him, a little greenhouse and a place in the middle of his acres, where he can live and where he can quietly watch and get ready for the great occasion-the mating of two parents, the offspring of which is to be propagated by buds or cuttings and later cover whole hillsides with superb fruit trees or by seed like the Marquis wheat and stretch away to the horizon—one level plain of perfect wheat heads.

I stood under a flowering spray of the Van Fleet rose last summer, and the president of the Rose Society said to me, "I am propagating a million plants of Van Fleet's roses this year. Van Fleet has produced some of the greatest climbing roses of this country."

It was my thought in writing this article that the readers of the Journal of Heredity might like to know that Doctor Van Fleet, the recognized breeder of roses has gathered a practical working collection of plants around him and in six years built up a place which should be an inspiration to any breeder and which illustrates what I am advocating, the establishment of such places by public agencies, wherever the individual plant enthusiast can be found who will utilize them and make them effective.

The Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction can furnish the plants, the breeder can furnish the land, the government should provide the greenhouse and the labor and propagate and distribute the resulting hybrids to the commercial nurseries and proven cultivators of the country.