Here are a few more selections that you might find interesting from American Perceptions of Immigrant and Invasive Species: Strangers on the Land, by Peter Coates, published in 2006.
Before Columbus brought seeds and cuttings along on his second voyage to the West Indies, North America was home to less than 1 percent of the world’s total complement of cereals, starches, fruits, and vegetables.
Today, the only crops of significant commercial value native to the territory that became the United States are cranberry, blueberry, pecan nut, sugar maple, sunflower, and tobacco–a fact that offers eloquent testimony to the great service that has been duly rendered by a sting of public-spirited Americans…
No American public servant since [Thomas] Jefferson deserves more credit for transforming the foreign into the common than David G. Fairchild. In his capacity as agricultural explorer in charge at the Section for Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction from 1898 until 1928, Fairchild brought the navel orange to Florida and California from Brazil and oversaw the introduction of Italy’s seedless grape and China’s dry land pistachio. His most notable contributions, however, were in the introduction of the Chinese soybean and…the tree that became an essential prop of Washington, D.C.‘s monumental landscape, adorning the Tidal Basin: the Japanese flowering cherry tree.
Fairchild’s encounters with the infamous vine that “ate the South”…left him somewhat chastened. He first came across kudzu about 1900 while touring Japan, where this wild, semiwoody perennial was fed to livestock. In his autobiography he recalled a visit to a “kudzu enthusiast” in Chipley, Florida, who was renowned for singing its praises as a forage crop in the early 1900s, despite his neighbors’ distrust. “Whenever I think of that night’s talk with the kudzu pioneer,” recalled Fairchild, “I have a special feeling of pride in what might be called our American willingness to try something new, whether it be a new forage crop, a new food, or any one of a thousand new, machine-made gadgets.” Fairchild, who confessed that “perhaps I have an undue passion for the new,” retained his faith in kudzu for quite some time, despite its proclivity to spread at will. By the late 1930s, however he was expressing his growing reservations in print. The seeds he brought back from Japan and planted on his property in Florida “‘took’ with a vengeance, smothering everything they got onto, and pretty soon we became alarmed. Feeling that the kudzu was too much for us, we began to cut it out.”
Fairchild finally returned home, so to speak, in 1946, when invited to make his selection for the “My Favorite Tree” guest column in the journal of the American Forestry Association (the nation’s oldest conservation organization, founded in 1875). After mentioning a string of exotic also-rans, but discarding them as unsatisfactory, he recalled that he had seen his first grove of California coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) fairly late in life, at a time when he was still besotted with exotic Asiatic promise: “A feeling of utter paralysis overtook me and the passion for planting trees, my puny little trees, anywhere, became distasteful.”
The stories in the book are great, and the social commentary is compelling. Unfortunately, every now and then a botanical clinker drops into the book’s pages, such as the one that follows the quote on redwoods immediately above, where the author waxes, “Though the redwood is only really found in California (there is a tiny patch in the most southwesterly corner of Oregon), it is arguably more American than any other tree in the United States insofar as it has no relatives, near or distant, in any other country.” Like, um, what about the Chinese dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)?
Okay, this isn’t a book you read for the botany, but it’s a worthy and thoughtful work on plants and the human condition, perfect for late winter reading as you contemplate the impending blooming of your cherry trees.
Although it’s primarily about biological immigrants to North America, Peter Coates points occasionally out that the immigrant-carrying boats sailed both directions:
The native oaks of Britain and the United States were greatly admired by J.C. Loudon, a leading British horticulturist of the mid-nineteenth century. He pronounced them “the most beautiful of trees.” Yet exotic trees had already become a mandatory ingredient of the “polite” British landscape enclosed within private estates. Loudon himself was one of the trendsetters who insisted that, notwithstanding the oak’s charms, “no residence in the modern style can have a claim to be considered as laid out in good taste, in which all the trees and shrubs employed are not either foreign ones, or improved varieties of indigenous ones.
The most sought-after of these arboreal exotics were hardy North Americans. Britons were ruthlessly condescending toward American artistic achievements at this time. “In the four quarters of the globe,” Sydney Smith famously inquired [in 1820], “who reads an American book?” or goes to an American play” or looks at an American picture or statue?” Yet no one asked “who plants an American tree?”