Western New York Horticultural Society Proc. 29th Annual Meeting, 75-79 (1884)
Selecting for Earliness
Dr. E. Lewis Sturtevant


Invited to prepare a paper for your meeting, I have deemed it advisable to offer suggestions rather than statements of opinion, as thus enlarging opportunity for research by practical men, and escaping the danger of offering conclusions for which one season's work scarcely furnishes safe data. In all progress it is the littles that are of importance, although oftentimes the startling results of their accumulation are what in general receive attention and comment. To determine the proper course for gain, even if the gain seems at first small, and then continue in this course, is the part of wisdom and the directions offered by science. To no class does this course offer more of promise than to the horticulturist, as whether in fruits or flowers or vegetables advance is sure of recognition and substantial reward. The art of horticulture stands in relation to agriculture as the university course does to the common school, embracing, as it does at present, a wider and a higher field, and necessitating a higher education in those who practice it than is usually deemed sufficient for the farm.


The great aim in our present gardening is to secure earliness of product, without too much loss in quality. To secure a vegetable in market condition before the market is generally supplied, carries not only profit to the producer, but quick sale. It therefore becomes a pertinent inquiry how we can systematically proceed in order to early (to coin a word) our garden varieties. We have seen but one suggestion as to how this can be done, other than the selection of the earliest ripening for seed, and this by Siegert, a German investigator, who is quoted as saying that the sowing of unripe peas tends to produce earlier varieties. At the Station we have made no serious attempts, as yet, to test this question, but there is so much analogical reasoning in its favor that we have almost persuaded ourselves to believe that by the repeated sowings of unripe seed, we can secure a tendency toward earliness in the product. In experiments on germination we find that unripe seeds usually germinated earlier than did the fully ripe, and that some seeds would start a growth when not hardened, but in the milk.

In germinating most seeds, we shall abundantly notice that there is a great variation between the individual seeds in their power of germinating. Thus, for illustration—100 seeds of a radish being sown, fifty-eight germinated the second day, one on eighth day, and then, after fourteen days interval, yet another; fifty seeds of a squash placed in our apparatus germinated twelve seeds the second day, fifteen the third and two on the twenty-first day; 100 seeds of onion germinated one the first day, thirty five the third day, one the thirteenth day, and then, after ten days' interval, yet another; 100 seeds of a musk-melon germinated seventy-eight the second day and one on the twelfth day; 100 seeds of a Savoy cabbage germinated forty-nine the first day, thirty-nine the second day and one each on the fifth and ninth days. When we consider that in practice some one plant grown by us will exceed all the rest in earliness, we can not but suspect a connection with the seed, and that perhaps if we should plant the seeds that germinate earliest, in comparison with those that germinate latest, we would secure earliness of crop in one over the other. We trust that this hypothesis will receive trial by those who are rightly circumstanced.

We find that tomato fruits vary not only in size and smoothness, but as well in the number of cells they contain. As a universal observation of varieties we find that the smoothest tomatoes are usually those with the fewest cells. If then we would secure smoothness in our varieties, it would seem wise to select those with few lubes from which to take seed. We would not deny that many cells and smoothness may occur on the same fruit, nor would we state what number of cells offer the best fruit. This characteristic varies somewhat with varieties, yet upon the same vine the smooth fruits will, in general, contain the fewer cells.

The cabbage plant is very subject to cross-fertilization, and hence the difficulty in procuring seed true to name, except where only one variety is grown. There is also much uncertainty in the heading of cabbages. If cabbages could be grown from cuttings, plants with desirable qualities could thus be propagated with certainty. The cabbage leaf roots easily; a single cabbage head will furnish innumerable cuttings, as each piece, even of the blanched leaf, can be made to form roots. Unfortunately there is a reluctance in these cuttings to form buds and growth. It is perhaps possible that by striking cuttings in the autumn and keeping over the winter in a cold frame, that spring plants might be thus obtained.

We have in horticulture insect friends as well as foes. How many of us realize that in some varieties of bean, flowers unvisited by insects rarely produce seed. We often ascribe loss of crop to other causes than the true one. It seems probable that the lack of prolificacy of the English bean grown at the station was due to the lack of visits by proper insects. It is also worthy of inquiry whether a hive of Italian bees would not be a profitable investment for the bean grower. Those who grow beans should welcome the bumble bees, as this insect seems to be the main agency for the fertilization of our common garden beans and field beans.

From a careful study of one hundred and thirty kinds of maize, planted together in order to furnish a study of hybridization, we are compelled to the statement that the change of individual kernels on the ear is apparently produced by the cross-fertilization of the current year, while the change in the ear and in the variety comes from cross-fertilization of the preceding year, or years. Hence, when a purposely cross-fertilized maize kernel is planted by itself, we should expect to obtain for crop a cob containing but one appearance of kernel, and by again planting a kernel from this self-fertilized crop, we should, in time, expect to acquire, through this selection, a new variety. Where more than one kernel is used, the one plant fertilizes the other with a pollen different from its own, and hence variously colored, or striped, or even other type kernels may appear in our crop. Crossing, however, may be more difficult between one set of types than another.

This same line of remark also seems to hold true for the bean. A single bean sport planted by itself produced a crop of uniform appearing beans of entirely different appearance from the seed. Other beans which had been undoubtedly cross-fertilized the preceding year produced a diversity of beans in their crop, in one case ten distant colors and shapes. If then we would gain a new variety of bean, we would anticipate more speedy and certain success through the use of a single seed each year, and cross-fertilizing the blooms from other blooms on the same plant.

Selecting for earliness

The position of a seed upon a plant seems to exert a marked influence. Thus in peas a marked earliness, as much as five days, was found in favor of the lowest, or earliest maturing pods of the Tom Thumb variety, as compared with the higher or later formed pods. In the Sunflower, plants from seeds taken from auxiliary flowers had narrower leaves, and were of a lighter green than other plants from seed taken from terminal flowers. In the Red-top Strap-leaf Turnips the seeds from the terminal blooms were distinctly larger than those from the lower branches. In Sorghum the seed ripens from the summit of the plume downward, and from germination trials we may infer that through selecting terminal seed for successive plantings, increase of earliness would be obtained. In maize the tip kernels showed greater vigor and prolificacy and a finer ear in the crop than did the butt or central kernels of the cob. Experiments in this direction are well worth the attention of the originator's of new varieties.

Hybridization is always a fascinating study, and is deserving the attention of pomologists to even a greater extent than is at present pursued. We think this year we have obtained a cross of the pepper on the tomato, and the alkekengi on the potato. Other desirable attempts to be made as we obtain material is the using of the Vitis aestivalis pollen upon the V. Labrusca pistil; the crossing of the English gooseberry upon the American gooseberry; the crossing of the various species of currants, and the trial of the currant upon the gooseberry, and vice versa. A field for attempt is the crossing of the raspberry and the blackberry; if the longest cultivated and most modified varieties of each be taken, there seems a possibility of success. Although these crosses may prima facie be seemed impossible, yet in methodical experiment we are justified in attempts which do not promise aught save possibility.

Trusting that such suggestions as I have offered may receive the attention their merits or demerits deserve, I bring my paper to a close, perfectly aware that I have offered you but little certainty of statement, but rather only some few possibilities in horticulture.