According to the truism, we are what we eat. These days, most of us delight in eating plenty of guacamole and mango chutney. But where did those avocados and mangos originate? When did they shift from being exotic intruders to part of our daily diets? What were the politics of their transfer? Most of us haven’t a clue.
In fact, deliberate plant transfer into the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century, to the period when Darwinism spurred scientific interest in new typologies and in the recording of new species. This seemingly innocent and objective process evolved into a dynamic global strategy of plant exploration and collection that transformed landscapes and yielded new hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties. In the United States, plant transfer had a clear economic base: the us Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to provide American farmers with seeds and plants for the creation of new markets. As a result of USDA policy, farming and the national landscape changed dramatically, if gradually. New hybrids that were developed in this country became staples in regional and national markets and ultimately engendered a transformation in global agriculture.
The pioneers who sought out nonindigenous plants were by and large men of creative vision and imagination. The collection of plants and their transfer initially belonged to a burgeoning botanical science in which new plants were added to growing and impressive typologies. But economic reasoning, no less than scientific curiosity, shaped the plant hunters’ activity. The significant funding involved in organizing their travels and disseminating their work required administration by government agencies that imposed a variety of regulations and controls. Today’s network of food regulations reflects a hierarchy tied not only to health and safety but also to economics and control.
In the late nineteenth century, the USDA sent agents throughout the world to find new fruit and vegetable varieties suitable for hybrid adaptation and eventual export in the world market. These agents, largely unknown to most of us today, formed a cadre of remarkable explorers who pushed at the frontiers of botanical science and changed forever what we buy at our markets, plant in our gardens, and cook for our meals.
The Plant Hunters
David Fairchild (1869–1954). David Fairchild, a botanist and bureaucrat, grew up in Kansas in the 1870s as a member of America’s intellectual elite. He studied at the Kansas State College of Agriculture, where his father was president, and then at Iowa State and at Rutgers, where his uncle, a distinguished biologist, taught. He eventually married one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters. Fairchild came to Washington in the early 1890s, where he joined the Department of Agriculture and made several explorative forays abroad. Indeed, while working for the USDA, Fairchild himself introduced more than twenty thousand exotic plants into the United States, among them mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboos, and after a trip to Japan, the first flowering cherries of Washington, D.C. In 1889 he convinced the us Congress to allocate twenty thousand dollars to create the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (OFSPI) and subsequently became its first director. Fairchild’s intention, like that of the USDA in general, was to support an applied botanical science to provide American farmers with what they called “economic plants” for market development. To achieve that goal, he sent USDA agricultural explorers, known as “plant hunters,” to collect thousands upon thousands of seeds and plants suitable for America’s farms, home gardens, and city landscapes.