This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
Most of our cultivated fruits are in an artificial state, and not natural forms, many of them unpalatable, and some of them, in their original condition, are even deleterious, if not poisonous, when taken into the stomach. The apple originated from the wild crab of Europe, and from the few kinds cultivated by the Romans the number of varieties has increased until in this country alone there are now more than 2,000. The peach had its origin, according to some authorities, in the bitter almond, as did also the apricot and nectarine. The pear, in its wild state, or even as cultivated three or four ! centuries ago, was seldom eaten except when cooked or made into some >kind of conserves. The finer varieties of raspberry are the result of high cultivation and reproduction by seeds, of a kind of raspberry no better than our common wild varieties; in fact, the Catawissa and several others are sports of the natives of our fields and forests.
THE IMPROVED WILD CHERRY.
Nearly all of our esteemed fruits are of foreign origin; for, although the forests of the United States abound in wild fruits which are susceptible of the same improvements, very little, if any, attention has been given to them; the principal reason of which is, that the time required and the uncertainty of the result are too great for individual enterprise; and if ever undertaken to any extent, must be under the fostering care of government, or through the enterprise of wealthy individuals or associations.
Nature, however, sometimes gives us strong hints of our neglect, in exhibiting an inclination to improve upon the original type. The foreign grapes have always refused to be naturalized to our climate, and it never occurred to the vine-growers of the country that their places could be supplied from our inferior wildings, until, by a freak of nature, the Catawba was produced from the Vitis labrusca. The Isabella and Diana followed, demonstrating in what direction we should look for our supply of grapes and wine. Now some of our nursery catalogues contain the names of more than a hundred native varieties, almost entirely superseding the foreign ones. And I have no doubt the day will come when a like improvement will take place in all of our wild fruits; for all of them sport more or less, in size, shape, flavor, and season, and it is only necessary to take advantage of these sports to obtain superior varieties, better suited to our soil and climate than those now in cultivation.
The cultivated cherry is a native of Asia Minor, with the exception of some of our sweet cherries, which sprung from the bitter Mazzard of Europe, is badly suited to the climate and soil of a large portion of our continent, and is subject to many diseases; so much so that in some large sections the trees are rarely planted, while the forests abound in the wild Virginian cherry, (Cerasus Virginiana of Michaux; Cerasus serotina of De Candolle; Pronus Virgvniana of Linnceus, erroneously.) It bears small white flowers on long racemes, which appear in May, and are succeeded by purplish black drupes (fruit) about the size of a pea, of a sweetish, astringent, bitter taste, entirely unfit for the dessert, and is considered of little value except in flavoring liquors. The wood is used by cabinet-makers, and the bark is one of our most valued medicines in diseases of the lungs, throat, and chest. The tree is of rapid growth, attaining a large size, and as an ornamental tree is valuable.
It is to this tree that we must look for our supply of cherries. As uninviting as it seems, it is possible, even probable, if not almost certain, that a fruit may be produced from this species that will equal in size and quality our present cultivated varieties, and far surpass them in hardiness, healthiness, and thriftiness. As the first step in that direction, I herewith send you a drawing of the fruit of a tree in this neighborhood, which is a wide stride towards the perfection I predict. The tree came up in a fence-corner, about twenty years ago, on the farm of Dr. D. Davison, and since it was four or five years old has borne a crop of fruit every year. The tree is now over twenty inches in diameter three feet from the ground, at least sixty feet high, and drops its fruit over a circle at least forty feet in diameter. The fruit is three times as large as the average of wild cherries, and is entirely devoid of all bitterness and astringency in taste; and although I do not profess to be a good judge of cherries, I pronounce it equal to the beat cultivated cherry in flavor, and all who taste it pronounce the same judgment It produced this year, I should think, at least fifteen, if not twenty, bushels of cherries, of the size shown in the drawing I send.
I have a number of seedlings from it, now one year old, from four to five feet high, and will plant more seed with the expectation of finally producing something still better.
[We believe Mr. Adair is on the right track. If the Patent Office, instead of wasting some fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year on seeds of which we already have more than enough, would devote a portion even of this sum to the improvement of our native plants, or the exploration of new regions of country in search of undiscovered plants, it would be doing some good, and entitle itself to the gratitude of the country. We wrote to the head of the Department on this subject some five or six years ago, but ineffectually, and nothing will probably ever be done in this way except by private liberality and enterprise. - Ed].