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Some Plants Which Are Begging For Immediate Improvement

A Rough Survey of the Possibilities

"I have finished making an analysis of a number of your fruits," wrote a chemist to Mr. Burbank, "and I find that pectic acid, which is so apt to play havoc with the human digestive tract, and which accounts for the inability of many people to enjoy raw fruit, is almost entirely absent." "It must be, then, that I don't like pectic acid," commented Mr. Burbank as he read the letter. "It never occurred to me to give the matter of its elimination a thought; so, the only way I can account for the lack of it is that, as I have selected my fruits by tasting, I have preferred those which were low in this content."

It would be no small achievement to rebuild our fruits and grains and vegetables to fit the finnicky stomachs which sedentary occupations are giving us. Yet such a transformation is one which might be easily wrought in a few years through simple selection, and serves, here, to illustrate the vast range of possibilities in plant improvement which only wait willing hands and active minds to turn them into realization. Immediate possibilities for plant improvement, indeed, outnumber the improvements which have already been wrought, ten thousand to one. It is planned in these books to treat of the possibilities of each plant separately, in connection with the description of the work which has already been done, since each of Mr. Burbank's improvements not only suggests countless other improvements which he has not had the time to take up, but indicates, in a measure, the method by which their accomplishment may be brought about. It may be well, at this point, however, to survey, roughly, the range of possibilities for improvement, so that, as we go along, we may have an appreciative eye for the value of the things which are clamoring to be done.

The incident of the pectic acid is but one of many unexpected improvements which Mr. Burbank has discovered in his productions after his first object has been achieved. Possibly as striking an illustration of this as could be chosen is one which made itself evident in the plumcot. So intent was Mr. Burbank on his purpose of combining two species, the plum and the apricot-so single-minded was his idea of producing a fruit which should reflect its double parentage in flesh and flavor-that he lost sight of some of the incidental possibilities of such a combination. The cross having been made, however, he set about to study the other new characters which the combination showed. Some of these were recognized as being of little practical value. The foliage of the plumcot tree, for example, does not necessarily resemble the plum or the apricot, being intermediate and representing a perfect blend. Though, it may be noted in passing, the foliage of a cross or hybrid often takes on the characteristics of either one parent or the other, or may consist of varicolored leaves, or may even present leaves of two distinct kinds. This is an interesting and important subject which will be clearly illustrated with direct color photographs later. Finding the plumcot foliage a blend, Mr. Burbank was not surprised to discover that the root of the plumcot tree resembled in color neither the bright red of the apricot, nor the pale yellow of the plum, but was of an intermediate shade. Of the thousands of characteristics of the parent species as they were subjected to examination and analysis, the most startling was found in the surface texture of the fruit itself-one of the most novel effects, in fact, to be seen in all Nature. The apricot has a fine velvety skin which serves not only as a protection to the fruit from insects and from the sun's withering rays, but which adds greatly to its attractive appearance. Plums, usually, are overspread with a delicate white or bluish bloom, powdery in form, easily defaced by the slightest handling. This bloom adds a touch of delicacy and beauty to the fruit, suggests its freshness, and intensifies the attractiveness of the colors underneath. In the early plumcots it was noticed that many had a softer, more velvety skin than the apricot, and that this persisted after much handling. Then, as the characteristics began to settle, after several generations of plumcots had appeared, it was noticed that the new fruit not only had the attractive velvety skin of the apricot, but that this velvet overspread and protected a bloom like that of the plum, giving the plumcot the plum's delicacy of appearance, with the apricot's hardiness to handling. When this blend of bloom and velvet was noted, experiments were made to determine how much handling it would withstand. A dozen plumcots were passed around from hand to hand possibly hundreds of times, and then left to decay, the condition of the velvet bloom being noted from time to time. While there was a slight decrease in the brilliancy of the bloom, yet it persisted to a surprising degree even after the flesh of the plumcot had decayed. The accompanying color photograph prints show clearly the difference in appearance between the plum and the plumcot after being subjected to handling.The value of this characteristic is greater than might first be estimated. Plums lose their bloom to a great extent, even on the tree-by brushing of leaves or chafing together. Wherever foliageor other fruit touches it, the bloom is injured or destroyed beyond repair. It is of course impossible to get the plum to market without rubbing off the greater part of the bloom and giving the fruit a mussy appearance. In making the photographs in these books, in fact, it has been found difficult, first to find the fruit which has a perfect bloom on the tree; and second, to get the plum in front of the camera without defacing it. Wherever a finger touches the plum a mark is left, and since fruits, at best, must receive much handling from the orchard to the ultimate consumer, the plum is likely to lose its charm long before its real freshness or flavor has begun to depreciate. With the plumcots, however, the velvety bloom remains through growing, picking, sorting, shipping, handling and sale. Which means, of course, that the grower, the shipper, and the dealer receive a better profit, and the consumer pays the extra cost with cheerfulness, because appearance, after all, is nearly as valuable a point in a fruit as size, flavor or sweetness. This one, unplanned, unexpected improvement in the plumcot increases the earning capacity of the fruit by more than $100.00 per acre over what could be earned if plumcots had an evanescent bloom like their parent plums. Which is simply another evidence of the importance, in plant improvement (and else-where) of things which, at first, we are too apt to regard as trifles. It is the seeming trifles, after all, which appear to have the greatest effect on prices and profits. Of the two tins of asparagus shown here, one commands more than twice the retail price of the other, and brings considerably more than double the profit to the asparagus grower, simply because of the trifle that the more costly asparagus stands up through all the operations from the garden to the table, while the other, broken down in structure, presents a messy, unappetizing appearance when served. Since it costs no more to raise the higher priced asparagus, after the expense of a few seasons of selection has been paid for, what excuse can there be for producing the other kind? It would be impossible, here, to begin to catalog the improvements which can be wrought-improvements in the size, shape, color, texture, juiciness, flavor, sweetness, or chemical content of fruits; improvements in the appearance, tenderness, taste, cooking qualities, and nutritive elements in vegetables; improvements in length and strength of fiber in cotton, flax and hemp; improvements in size, flavor, solidity, thinness of shell of nuts; improvements in the quantity and the quality of kernels in grains; improvements in amount and in value of the chemical content of sugar beets, sorghum, coffee, tea and all other plants which are raised for their extracts; improvements, wonderful improvements, in the stalk of corn, even, so that though we could make it bear no more kernels, or no more ears, it would still yield us a better and bigger forage crop; improvements, all of them, which are capable of turning losses into profits, and of multiplying profits, instead of merely adding to them by single percents.

Improving the yield and, consequently, the usefulness and profit of existing plants, however, is but the beginning of the work before us. An almost equally rich field lies in saving plants from their own extravagance, thereby increasing the yield. The fruit trees of our fathers and mothers were shade trees in size, with all too little fruit. The ideal orchard of today, generally speaking, is the one which can be picked without the use of a step ladder. Thus, already, we have taught fruit bearing plants economy-saved them the extravagance of making unnecessary wood, at the expense of fruit, since it is their fruit, not their wood, that we want. The grapes of our childhood grew sparsely on climbing vines which covered our arbors; while the grapes grown for profit today grow thickly, almost solidly, on stubby plants three feet or so in height. The value of the grape plant lies in the fruit and not in the vine. In so many different ways can we save our plants extravagance and increase their useful products by curbing their useless ones, that it would not be possible to list them here. But, aside from these, and in the same category, there are countless other new improvements to be wrought. The stoneless plum points the way to a new world of fruits in which the stony or shell-like covering of the seeds has been bred away. The coreless apple, pear and quince, with sheathless seeds growing compactly near the top, out of the way-these are all within the range of accomplishment. Seedless raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, currants, with the energy saved reinvested in added size or better flavor, call for some one to bring them about. Seedless grapes we have had for more than a century; yet by a certain cross which Mr. Burbank will suggest in the grape chapter, he believes that they can be doubled in size and much improved in flavor. Seedless figs, even, might be made, but these could be counted no improvement; for the seeds of the fig give the fruit its flavor. Seedless watermelons might mean more work than the result would repay, but navel watermelons, with seeds arranged as in the navel orange, would, likely enough, yield a result commensurate with the effort required to produce them. Thornless blackberries and spineless cactus are productions of proven worth and long standing, which Mr. Burbank has now followed up with his thornless raspberry-with many other thornless plants to come. Why thorns at all, in the world of useful plants, when useful plants no longer need them? Whatever plant we observe we shall see some waste which might be eliminated, some weakness which might be overcome, some extravagance which might be checked-and all for the profit of producer and consumer alike.

Still another important department of plant improvement lies in fitting plants to meet specific conditions.The grape growers of California, for example, had their vineyards destroyed by a little plant louse called the phylloxera, a pest which not only attacks the leaves, but the roots as well, and kills the vine. The growers found relief through grafting new vines on resistant roots which environment had armored against this pest. When we think of the cactus, and the sage- brush, and the desert euphorbia-of the conditions which, unaided, they have withstood and the enemies which they have overcome, does it not seem as if, with our help, we should be able to produce new races of plants to withstand the boll weevil, the codling moth and the San Jose scale; and with complaints so broadcast, and successes so marked and so many, does not the perfection of disease- and pest-resisting varieties seem an important and lucrative field?Nor are the insects and diseases the only enemies which plants can be taught to overcome. Mr. Burbank has trained trees to bloom later in the season so as to avoid the late frosts which might nip the buds; and to bear earlier, that their fruit may be gathered before the early frosts of fall have come to destroy. He has encouraged the gladiolus to thicken its stalk and to rearrange its blossoms, so that the wind no longer ruins its beauty. And the prune, which must lie on the groundtill it cures, had the habit, here in California, of ripening at about the time of the equinoctial rains of fall. Mr. Burbank helped it to shift its bearing season earlier so that, now, when the rains come, the prune crop has been harvested and is safely under cover. In all of these enemies of plant life, the insects, and the diseases, and the rains, and the frosts, and the snows, and even the parching heat of the plains, there are opportunities for the plant improver. Yet these enemies form the least important, perhaps, of the special conditions to which plants may be accommodated. The market demand, for example, is a specific condition which well repays any effort expended in transforming plants to meet it. The early cherries, and the early asparagus, and the early corn-and every fruit and food which can be offered before the heavy season opens, is rewarded with a fancy price which means a fancy profit to its producer. The early bearers, too, may be supplanted with those still earlier, until the extra early ones overlap the extra late ones. Mr. Burbank now has strawberries, which, in climates where there is no frost severe enough to prevent, bear the year around. Mr. Burbank's winter rhubarb, another year-around bearer, as well as his plumcot with its indestructible bloom, are improvements which show what can be done in the way of meeting market demand. His cherries, which have retailed at $3.10 a pound because of their lusciousness and their earliness, give an idea of the profit of changing the bearing periods of our plants as against taking their output as it comes. Beside the market demand for fresh fruits and vegetables ahead of time, there is an almost equally great demand, later on in the season, from the canners. The illustration of the asparagus which stands canning as against equally good asparagus which does not, typifies the needs of this demand. The same truth applies to tree fruits and berries and vegetables-to everything that undergoes the preserving process. Some plants are more profitable when their bearing season is lengthened as much as possible; some, as has been seen, when it is made earlier or later; but Mr. Burbank faced a different condition when he produced his Empson pea. The canners wanted a very small green pea to imitate the French one which is so much used. Quite a little problem in chemistry was involved. Peas half grown are two-thirds sweeter than peas full grown, because, toward the end, their sugar begins to go a step further and turn into starch. With these demands in mind, Mr. Burbank planted and selected, and planted and selected until he had the qualities he wanted in a pea of the right size when it was half ripe. But still another element entered-peas for canning should ripen all at one time and not straggle out over a week or two. The reason for this being that, if they ripen all at once, they may be harvested by machinery so that the cost of handling is cut to the minimum. Mr. Burbank took the peas which he had selected for form, size, color, taste, content, and productiveness; then picked them over and, out of tens of thousands, got perhaps one or two hundred peas which he planted separately. These, then, he harvested by separately counting the pods and counting the peas, until he had finally combined in his selection not only the best of the lot but those which ripened at the same time-practically on the same day. Today those Burbank Empson peas form the chief industry of a large community. There are countless other requirements which can be equally well met-countless little economies which can be taught to the plants-little, as applied to any specific plant, but tremendous in the ag regate. There is, for instance, Mr. Burbank's new canning cherry which, when picked, leaves its stone on the tree. It would seem a small thing to one eating the cherries as he picks them off the tree. Yet, think of the saving, as carload after carload of these are brought to the cannery-the saving at a time when minutes count, when help is short, generally, and when the fruit, because of heat, is in danger of spoiling-under these conditions think of the saving in not having to pit them. The list could be extended almost endlessly, from thickening the skin of the plum so as to enable it to be shipped to South Africa and back, as Mr. Burbank has done, to the production of a tomato, which, when placed in boiling water, will shed its skin without peeling-which Mr. Burbank says can be done. Under the head of saving a plant from its own extravagance might well come the large subject of bringing trees to early fruiting, or of shortening the period from seed to maturity in shade and lumber trees. Mr. Burbank's quick growing walnut, and his pineapple quince and chestnut seedlings bearing crops at six months, stand forth as strong encouragement to those who would take up this line. Then, too, under the same heading of fitting plants to meet new conditions, whole chapters might be written on how the fig tree could be adapted to New England; or how Minnesota might be made one of the greatest fruit producing states, or how almost any plant might, in time, be adapted to any soil or any climate. And, conversely, there is the broad subject of adapting plants to special localities. The hop crop of Sonoma County, California, the cabbage crop near Racine, Wisconsin, the celery crop near Kalamazoo, the canteloupe crop at Rocky Ford-all of these bear eloquent testimony to the profit of a specialty properly introduced. Who can say how many who are making only a hand-to-mouth living out of corn or wheat, simply because they are in corn or wheat countries, could not fit some special plant to their worn out soil ? And who, seeing that some forms of plant life not only exist, but thrive, under the most adverse conditions, shall say that there is any poor land, anywhere? Is it not the fact that poor land usually means that the plants have been poorly chosen for it, or poorly adapted to it? These are all problems which will be treated in their proper places, problems which offer rich rewards to plant improvers of determination and patience.

So far, in these opportunities for plant improvement, we have referred only to the betterment of plants now under cultivation. When we remember that every useful plant which now grows to serve us was once a wild plant, and when we begin to check over the list of those wild plants which have not yet been improved, the possibilities are almost staggering. Not all plants, of course, are worth working with-not all have within them heredities which could profitably be brought forth. But as a safe comparison, it might be stated that the proportion between present useful plants and those in the wild which can be made useful, is at least as great or greater than the proportion between the coal which has already been mined, and the coal which is stored up for us in the ground. Greater, by probably a hundred times, for while we have depleted our coal supply, our plants have been multiplying, not only in number, but in kind and in form. Moreover, from our wild plants, we may not only get new products, but new strength, new hardiness, new combative powers, and endless other desirable new qualities for our tame plants. All of these things are just as immediate as possibilities, as transcontinental railroads were fifty years ago. All of these things can be made to come about with such apparent ease that future generations will take them as a matter of course. Yet we have not touched, so far, on the most interesting field in plant improvement-the production, through crossing, hybridizing and selection, of entirely new plants to meet entirely new demands. Who shall produce some plant-and there are plenty of suggestions toward this end-which shall utilize cheap land to give the world its supply of wood pulp for paper making, the demand for which has already eaten up our forests and is fast encroaching on Canada's? Who shall say that within twenty years there will not be some new plant better than flax, some plant which, unlike flax for this purpose, can be grown in the United States, to supply us with a fabric as cheap as cotton, but as fine as linen? Who will be the one to produce a plant which shall yield us rubber-a plant growing, perhaps, on the deserts, which shall make the cost of motor car tires seem only an insignificant item in upkeep? And who, on those same deserts, and growing, perhaps, side by side, shall perfect a plant which can be transformed into five cent alcohol for the motors themselves?

We see that the openings for plant improvement broadly divide themselves into four classes. First, improving the quality of the product of existing plants. Second, saving plants from their own extravagance, thereby increasing their yield. Third, fitting plants more closely to specific conditions of soil, climate and locality. And fourth, transforming wild plants and making entirely new ones to take care of new wants which are growing with surprising rapidity.

The cost and quality of everything that we eat and wear depend on this work of plant improvement. The beefsteak for which we are paying an ever-increasing price represents, after all, so many blades of grass or, perhaps, so many slabs of cactus; while the potatoes, the lettuce and the coffee which go with it come out of the ground direct. Our shirts are from cotton or flax, or from the mulberry tree on which the silkworm feeds. Our shoes, like our steaks, resolve themselves into grass; while our woolen coats represent the grass which the sheep found after the cows got through. The mineral kingdom supplies the least of our needs; and the animal kingdom feeds on, and depends on, the vegetable kingdom, after all.

"Who can predict the result," asks Mr. Burbank, "when the inventive genius of young America is turned toward this, the greatest of all fields of invention, as it is now turned toward mechanics and electricity?"

This text is from: Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application. Volume 1 Chapter 8