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Doubtless the greatest labor-saving scheme ever devised by any flower to meet its essential needs is that adopted by the Sunflower family-the tribe popularly represented by the sunflowers, asters, thistles, and daisies. The botanist classifies the members of this tribe as Compositae or Compound Flowers. The name might be misleading if taken to imply that the flowers of this family differ essentially from other flowers. In point of fact, the individual flowers of this tribe are in all essentials of pistil and stamen like other flowers. So the modern botanist objects to the name "Compound" as applied to them, although he retains the Latin title that they have borne for some centuries. But if we properly interpret the term, the name "compound flower" seems appropriate enough, inasmuch as what would commonly be called a single blossom-say a single daisy, or aster, or dandelion, or thistle-is in reality made up of a very large number of individual flowers grouped together into a floral community, which advertises its location to the insects by arranging a single circle of petaloid colored emblems that do service for the entire community.


The economy of this arrangement, in the matter of saving of plant energy, is obvious. Flowers that have not adopted this system are obliged to supply a colored advertising emblem for each individual set of stamens and pistils. These composite flowers make one such floral emblem serve the purpose of scores or even hundreds of flowers. Of course the floral community, even though the individual flowers are very small, occupies considerable room. It is necessary, therefore, to provide a largish receptacle to hold the flowers, and in particular to hold their seeds when developed. The outside of this receptacle is usually covered, for protection, by overlapping series of scaly bracts or little leaves that form a sort of armor. A glance at a sunflower will illustrate the plan that has been pretty generally adopted in the provision of a covering to shield the flower-village, particularly during its early development.


In at least one case, a plant of the tribe has been induced to develop this receptacle until the leaves of its scale-like covering have been enlarged and thickened and made succulent at their base, so that they are edible; the receptacle on which the flowerets grow being correspondingly developed. The flower that has thus been induced to put itself at the service of man and add to the delicacies of his dietary is known as the artichoke. This plant is widely cultivated in Southern Europe and is exceedingly popular there. In Italy, indeed, it occupies in some regions about the position in the dietary of the masses that the potato does in Northern Europe and America. In this country, however, the artichoke has only somewhat recently begun to gain popularity. As the manner of its cultivation is better understood, it will doubtless gain wider vogue, for its leaf scales and pulpy receptacle are regarded as delicacies by epicures everywhere. I have worked somewhat extensively with the artichoke in very recent years, beginning with the French Globe artichoke and the Oval Brittany artichoke in 1908; subsequently using also the Paris artichoke, a large green variety, and of the so-called Perpetual artichoke. The plants when grown from seed vary markedly in size and shape of the leaf as well as in size of the blossom buds. Some of the plants are thorny. The flowers, if allowed to come to maturity, differ little in color, though greatly in size. Some of the flower receptacles when fully matured open out to a breadth of about twelve inches. But the flower bud is not permitted to mature to the point of opening when the artichoke is to be used as food. If it reaches the stage when the blue flowerets begin to be visible, the head is altogether too old for eating. The object of cultivating new varieties is not necessarily to increase the number of the flowers themselves, but the flower bud, increasing the size and the quality of the scale-like bud-leaves and the receptacle. My work has been carried out along the usual lines of selection, and the results have been very satisfactory. Selection has also taken into consideration, as a matter of course, the succulence and especially the flavor of the edible portion. The improved varieties have flower buds as large as a good sized fist, and are of excellent quality. When in full bloom they are sometimes a foot or more in diameter. They are reproduced with reasonable certainty from seeds, but the method of propagation generally preferred is by the use of suckers which the plant puts out freely. Of course these suckers reproduce the qualities of the individual plant from which they are taken, as roots or grafting cions do in the case of other plants. When it is understood by gardeners in general that the artichoke can be grown with comparative ease, and that it produces an abundant and never-failing crop of healthful, palatable, and nutritious food, this vegetable is sure to attain far greater popularity.


The young stems and leaves of the artichoke plant itself are sometimes eaten in Europe. It is necessary to blanch them by covering, somewhat after the manner of celery. There is a modified fonm of the artichoke, known as the Cardoon, which is cultivated for the stems and leaves instead of for the flower buds. These are blanched by tying the tops of the leaves together and covering the entire plant with straw, banked with earth. I have grown the cardoon, but have not experimented with it in the attempt to produce variation, as the European cultivators have developed it to a very satisfactory stage. The plant is very little known in America, but is likely to be more extensively propagated when its merits are understood.


Another member of the sunflower family is popularly known as the Jerusalem artichoke, the name having originated, it is said, in a Spanish nickname, amplified to suggest the relationship of the plant to the artichoke just described, which is sometimes spoken of as the Globe artichoke. The Jerusalem artichoke belongs to the genus Helianthus, of which there are numerous species, some of them growing wild in California. It is entirely distinct from the true artichoke, both in growth, appearance, and the purposes for which it is used. The part of this plant that is sometimes used as food is not the flower bud but a tuber not very remotely suggestive of a potato. The plants of this tribe are variable, as is usual with plants represented by many species. Some of them bloom abundantly when only six to twelve inches in height, while others grow to a height of ten to fifteen feet. They have very large, broad, heavy leaves, and some of them produce sunflower-like blossoms of enormous size. Others have small, delicate, slender foliage, and produce small flowers. The flowers are yellow, the tubers are usually pink, but white varieties have been produced in the past decade. Some members of the Helianthus tribe are perennials, but for the most part they are annuals. They are all easily grown on almost any soil, requiring little or no attention. The member of the tribe known as the Jerusalem artichoke is a somewhat variable plant the tubers of which are chiefly used as food for stock, although sometimes used as a salad. My own work with the tribe has had to do with the development of the flowers rather than with the tubers. There is one of the annual sunflowers that has a flower quite often sixteen to twenty-four inches in circumference that, if well selected, comes perfectly double, as double as the finest dahlia, producing a most brilliant yellow bloom abundantly. This I have worked on several years to make its flower uniformly double. I have worked with a large number of species of the tribe and have cultivated many field varieties collected in Mexico, California, the Mississippi Valley, and nearly as far north as Hudson Bay. I have done a good deal of crossing among the seedlings to increase the grace of the plants and delicacy of bloom, and to make the silvery, graceful leaves of one species replace the rough, coarse leaves of another. There is no great difficulty in hybridizing the various species, especially if care is taken to wash away the pollen by the method described in the chapter on artificial pollenation. But there is great difficulty in fixing a variety after it is formed. The hybrids tend to take on many forms, their variability in the second generation suggesting that of the gourd family. Of course, this difficulty does not apply in the case of the artichoke, as this may be propagated from tubers, just as the potato is propagated. So any improved variety developed is fixed from the outset. There has not hitherto been enough demand for the plant in this country to stimulate the plant developer to work with it. But it is probable in the near future there will be renewed interest in certain less common garden vegetables, comparable to that shown in recent years in the development of the orchard fruits, and in that case the Jerusalem artichoke is almost certain to receive recognition as a neglected vegetable that is worthy of being generally cultivated.


Doubtless the best known member of the composite family under cultivation is the familiar lettuce. This plant has been so long under cultivation that it is impossible to trace it back to the original wild species. In token of its long cultivation, it is one of the most variable of plants. There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce described in the catalogs but those all quite naturally fall under two distinct groups-the cabbage or head lettuce and the cos or upright growing lettuce, the latter of which is mostly grown in cool, moist climates. The cos lettuce requires too much care in blanching, and in our dry American climate runs up too quickly to seed in warm weather. My work with the lettuce was done about ten or twelve years ago, when I experimented in the endeavor to produce different forms, and attained a measure of success. In working with the cos lettuce I endeavored to get a more solid head which would be a very tender compact grower, and would not so quickly run to seed. The part of the lettuce that is eaten is, of course, the leaf, and the plant that runs to seed quickly develops a toughness of leaf fiber that impairs its value. In hybridizing the lettuce, my usual plan was to get two varieties to bloom as nearly as possible at the same time, and to pollenize by bringing the head of one and rubbing it against the flowerets of the other. The pollen may be removed with a dash of water, as already described, but there is always a measure of uncertainty in cross-pollenizing composite flowers of such small size as those of the lettuce, as one cannot be sure in many cases that a certain amount of the pollen does not remain to effect fertilization of some neighboring pistil. I was able to combine some desirable qualities, but did not succeed in combining all the desired qualities in a single variety. There is greater variation as to flavor among lettuces than is commonly supposed. Of course, the different types are used for different purposes and at different seasons. Those grown under glass must be compact growers, while those grown in the open may be permitted to develop larger heads. There are varieties of so-called perpetual lettuce which have been so educated that instead of running to seed they form new heads that can be cut again and again. As to all these matters there is room for improvement, and there is opportunity for the plant experimenter whose experience justifies him in working with a somewhat difficult species to secure better varieties of this very popular salad plant than any at present on the market. If it were desired to produce an exceedingly hardy variety of lettuce, it might be possible to hybridize the cultivated species with the wild lettuce. I have never attempted to do this, however, as the wild lettuce is a persistent and pestiferous weed which is hard to eradicate once it gains a foothold. It will grow and ripen seed in the corner of a brick wall when only a few inches in height; yet in a good location will grow seven or eight feet in height. It produces seed in vast numbers. But, of course, it is not the seed of the lettuce that the gardener is seeking, and it remains to be seen whether a combination of the wild with the cultivated one, even if hybridization could be effected, would result in useful variations.


There are other wild species of the composite family, however, that offer greater inducements to the cultivator. One of these is the familiar dandelion, a plant usually regarded as a weed, but really having possibilities of usefulness. The dandelion is sometimes used as a green vegetable in the early spring by country folk in various parts of the United States, but it is perhaps nowhere cultivated. In France, however, a successful attempt has been made to produce a dandelion that has much thicker, larger, and more abundant leaves than those of the wild plant. This developed form is sometimes cultivated there and attains a certain value as a market vegetable. The great difficulty which stands in the way of cultivation of the dandelion is its exceeding prolificness. The heads of the flower will ripen even when the plant has been pulled up by the roots. It is even alleged that the plant will develop seed when the flowers are not pollenized. This and the capacity to ripen seeds from the unopened bud makes the plant peculiarly difficult to eradicate, and it becomes an almost intolerable pest in lawns. Should an attempt be made to cultivate the dandelion, therefore, the aim should be to develop the leaves at the expense of the flower. Doubtless it would require long series of experimental efforts, but in the end it would probably be possible to develop a dandelion that would produce an abundance of large, succulent leaves somewhat as the lettuce does. Meantime the tendency to excessive flower production could be restricted. At least two other members of the Composite family that rank as weeds, and are generally held to be obnoxious, deserve to be named as offering possibilities of usefulness if properly educated. These are the thistle and the burdock. That the thistle is a succulent herb that browsing animals have found palatable, is proved by its development of an elaborate system of protective thorns. Of course, these thorns must be eliminated if the thistle is to be transformed into a garden vegetable. The thistles are not a whitmore thoroughly cursed with thorns than the artichoke was when first brought under cultivation; and not more so than some of the recessive artichoke seedlings are at the present day, even when grown from the most carefully selected stock. I have grown the thistle extensively from seed, and although I have worked more especially for variations in color of the flower, yet I have paid attention also to the quality of leaf, and I am quite convinced that it would not be difficult to produce a spineless variety. Indeed my experiments have advanced far in that direction. I am convinced also that the leaf and stock of the plant may readily be developed so as to make a palatable vegetable, comparable in its uses to spinach. It is known that some of the thistles are palatable when cooked, tasting not unlike the dandelion. There is a thistle raised in South America that is quite extensively used as food, and there is a California thistle with a variegated leaf that is sometimes eaten. These two are certainly as good as greens. Without a doubt their palatability could be increased by selective breeding, and this, with the removal of the thorns, would give us a new garden vegetable of a type at present rather sparsely represented. There is also an Old World thistle, known to the botanist as Cardaus mariwua that has found its way to this country, growing wild by the roadsides in California, that is sometimes used for cooking. The flower buds, roots, leaves, and leaf-stalks of this plant are edible-a very unusual exhibition of versatility scarcely duplicated by any vegetable under cultivation. As this European thistle is not distantly related to the French artichoke, and as it is edible even in its wild state, it would seem to furnish good material for the experiments of the plant developer. I have observed that cultivation and freedom from crowding increase the size and succulent qualities of this plant enormously. In other words it responds to cultivation readily. I have thought many times of improving it, and even yet may undertake to do so. I have done a good deal of work with a related naturalized weed from Europe, of the genus Sonchles, known as the sow thistle. The genus is closely related to the lettuce, and not distantly related to the artichoke. The two species with which I have worked are succulent weeds that vary greatly as to their degree of smoothness of leaves and stem. One of them is commonly known as the prickly sow thistle. But the two species are so crossed that it is hardly possible to find one in California now that is not hybridized. Such at least is my observation. I have worked on the smooth-leaved hybrids, which are highly nutritious, making excellent greens. The plants can be raised with the utmost ease, and varieties were produced from these wild hybrids, by selection and cross-breeding, which were far superior to any specimens seen in the wild state. So marked was the improvement that I was somewhat disposed to introduce the developed smooth-leaved sow thistle as a garden vegetable, but hesitated to do so lest I should be blamed for introducing a weed. The cultivated plant retains its ability to produce a superabundance of seed; which are drifted here and there by the wind. So it might escape to the field and become a pest. This of course is a danger that must be faced in the case of any wild plant brought into the garden. But it should not be forgotten that all of our present garden plants were at one time wild, and that the tendency to superabundant production of seed is likely to be lost when the plant is pampered by cultivation. I have also worked with a very fine species of Sonches from New Zealand. I found it more difficult to raise than the ordinary Sonches. Possibly by combining the two a plant might be developed that would lack the objectionable qualities of undue hardiness and prolificness. At least the experiment is worth making.


As to the burdock, doubtless the very mention of its name suggests a highly objectionable weed. And, indeed, the common burdock, as it grows by the roadside, after it comes to maturity is not an inviting plant. And by its objectionable burrs the plant is known and judged rather than by any other characteristic of the plant itself. But there are Japanese cousins of the burdock that are cultivated and have produced large and rather tender stalks and also long, fat roots which are highly prized as food. At an early stage, while these stalks retain their tenderness, they are not unpleasant to the European or American palate if when partially cooked the water that has extracted the bitter principle is removed and the cooking is continued with fresh water. The root is most used in Japan where it is considered one of their most valuable vegetables. The young, tender roots are offered for sale when about eight to twelve inches in length and an inch or more in diameter. They contain less of the bitter principle than do the leaf stalks. The stalks themselves, at their edible stage, are about the size and form of an ordinary leaf stalk of the rhubarb. Several of these Japanese burdocks have been grown on my grounds, where the American burdock has also been cultivated more or less for the last twenty years. I have noticed a great variation in the bitterness of the stalks of the plants. Under cultivation they have never become troublesome weeds, as the common burdock has become in the Eastern United States. They respond readily to the effort to improve them, and I entertain no doubt that if a systematic attempt were made to develop them along the right lines a most valuable vegetable might be produced, which would be appreciated by those who live in a more favored climate. The lines of selection should look to the production of a plant with large fine roots, or for a reduction of bitterness, which is the most objectionable quality of this plant. To anyone who has given little thought to the subject it may seem more or less absurd to talk of the development of useful qualities in such weeds as these. But whoever has a clear conception of the extent to which the vegetables now in our gardens have improved under cultivation will see possibilities in such plants as the thistle and the burdock that are not revealed to casual inspection. Poisonous plants like the tomato and the potato have been made wholesome within comparatively recent times. The thistle and burdock have no poisonous principle. Some species are wholesome and not unpalatable even in their wild state, and all that is required is to accentuate the good qualities that the plants already possess in order to make them worthy of membership in the coterie of garden vegetables.

-It should not be forgotten that all of our present garden plants were at one time wild, and that to the wild we must look for countless new garden plants in the future.

This text is from: Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application. Volume 7 Chapter 6