This section is from the book "The Florist And Garden Miscellany". Also see: All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space!.
I hope you are a botanist. I know some eminent florists who are so, and more than one really good botanist who duly appreciates floriculture. But as the agriculturist is proverbially a despiser of his garden, because of the larger results he is accustomed to deal with in his farm, so is it oftentimes with the botanist, and therefore I must have a word with him.
His objection is not likely to become general, because it involves some labour to be bestowed on the subject before its force will be perceived. But yet I have heard it oftener than might be expected; probably because the outlines of every science are now so generally known. It is to the effect, that floriculture (I mean that of fancy flowers) is, as a study, a descent from nature, and a degradation to it; and as an art, is essentially unscientific, and fit only for children. Our whole system, he says, is conversant about varieties, - things of small account in any case; while such as we covet ought not to exist at all, departures as they are, he says, from nature, and interferences with the habits of the plants.
That these charges should be made in good faith by those who only see floriculture from their supercilious distance is not surprising, since there is an appearance of truth in them; but that they will not stand examination will be admitted by those who maintain that there is a foundation for the preceding remarks. However, they require, and they deserve, a more particular notice appropriated to themselves.
It is not contended that the labours of the florist ought to be placed in the same rank with those of the botanist. We do not pretend that our pursuit is not of an inferior order to his; indeed, it arises out of, and is dependent on it. But we cannot allow that it is either unnatural or unscientific; nor even that its own peculiar science, in the smaller area to which it is confined, is not to the full as perfect and as pure as that of botany. The comprehensive survey of nature is his; the improvement of a few of the units out of his catalogue is ours; and to inquire into the best method of doing this may be found to demand scientific knowledge as high as that required for the more extended field of observation in discriminating between orders and genera, and the resemblances and differences of plants.
Few who had not previously paid attention to the subject can have read Mr. Story's interesting articles in your preceding Numbers on the hybridisation of the Erica, without perceiving that, for the successful pursuit of that practice, more of knowledge, and thought, and judgment, as well as of skill and patience, is required than he expected; that less is due to chance, and more to system; that a collection of facts, and a comparison of results, are needed; and arising out of this, a suitable variation of method according to circuinstances; in other words, that it demands a scientific adaptation of means to produce a desired end. And it will presently be my business to shew that this desired end itself is equally founded on physical facts, and reducible to rule; and that the alterations sought by florists in the petals and habits of certain flowering plants are no more open to the objections of the scientific botanist, than they are to those which have already been considered.
Neither is it justly alleged that either the end or the means used to attain it are unnatural. We are told, for instance, that the many thousand varieties of our Roses are, botanically, the same individual under so many thousands of fantastic dresses, and none of them natural, or conducive to the welfare of the species, or the more perfect development of its parts. On the contrary, that the greater number of them can never perfect their seeds, owing to the production of double flowers by the conversion of stamens into petals. This might have some weight, but that it entirely rests on a fallacy, which it is of some importance to notice. The Rose was not made for itself, nor is its place in creation only to produce seeds or to propagate its kind. It is a misunderstanding of the goodness of the Creator to overlook the fact, that, like ourselves and every other part of God's works, it was made for others as well as itself; and that one part of its design was, to please the eye of the beholder, as of fruits to please the palate of the eater.
Why, else, the otherwise useless enlargement of the petals of many, their elegant forms, their varied and brilliant colours? No one can say that any of these things minister, except in a small and questionable degree, to the welfare of the plant or of its seeds, any more than the grateful scent of the Mignonette or of the Violet does to theirs, or the lusciousness of the drupe, of the apricot, or of the peach, does to theirs. These additions to the necessary parts of fructification were for the sole advantage of others; those that please the eye or the smelling, seem to have been made for the sole pleasure of man; and it appears to have been the purpose of God in them to minister to his gratification alone. And if some species of flowers are found by experience to be capable of developing by cultivation greater powers of pleasing the eye than are possessed by the uncultivated natural specimen, there is nothing unnatural in pushing that development as far as it will go, and thus bringing forth into light, the extent to which it was meant to fulfil that particular purpose of its creation.
That the arts used for this purpose are not unnatural, may be seen in the analogous, instance of cultivated fruits. The apple, for instance, is one of those trees "whose seed is in itself." Around that seed is a fleshy envelope, pleasant to the eye, fragrant to the smell, and good for food; none of which qualities add to the perfection or security of the seed, but are intended for the use and gratification of men and animals. But this is not so with all the produce of those seeds of the tree, or any thing like it. Sow the seeds, and under the most favourable circumstances not above one in five hundred of the plants that spring from them can be expected to be worth cultivating for its own fruit. Are all the rest then useless? By no means. They are for an important purpose in the economy of man's sustenance from the fruits of the field. They undergo (by grafting) an operation much more startlingly unnatural, at first view, than is the hybridisation of the Erica; and the Crabstock is made to sustain the bearing wood of choicer kinds instead of its own - Miraturque novas frondes et non sua poma •* while the plants that spring from the successful seeds become the parents of new varieties as numerous as those of the Ranunculus or the Pelargonium. This apparently unnatural process is both natural and necessary.
And as the time when it was first practised is hidden in the mists of the remotest antiquity, and as it was anciently in use among nations unconnected with each other, and as each ascribed the discovery to its founder or to some god, it is probable that it was taught of God to our first father, when the original curse upon the ground and all its productions, for man's sin, made labour the condition of his bread!
This is rendered the more probable by the distinct claim made in Isaiah (xxviii. 23-29), for the teaching of the art of husbandry to man by the Creator, - an art which supplies us with a still stronger instance in point than the foregoing.
The most useful, or rather necessary, of all vegetable productions to man, the Cerealia (plants which produce the "breadstuff's" of the American vocabulary), appear to be almost all of them of the class most abhorrent to the botanist, - hybrids. At least the native original of many of them is, I believe, unknown, and of others would not be recognised except by a botanist. Cultivation during the course of four thousand years, and a care bestowed upon improving the seed, like that which the florist practises upon the Fuchsia or the Calceolaria, have made them what they now are. There can, therefore, be nothing unnatural in the art which has brought into being, or at least to its present state of perfection, the staff of human life.
And if the end aimed at in improving the petals of a Dianthus be of less importance to the welfare of man than in improving the seed of a Carex, yet the mode by which it is effected being the same in both cases, what is right in the one case cannot be wrong in the other. If it is not unnatural in the fruit, neither is it in the flower. That art is in perfect analogy with all the other consequences of our condition as children of Adam, - a condition which requires at our hands a laborious compulsion of nature to yield up to our importunities the riches it is entrusted with for our use.