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CAPTAIN MAYNE REID, whose books have made naturalists of more than one American boy, once wrote a story called, "The Plant Hunters." Its title was not particularly alluring to the lads of the generation who looked to their favorite for tales of pure adventure, but before they had read long they knew that they were to get excitement with their botany.
The heroes, there were three of them in the Captain's book, if memory's long shadow does not obscure the facts, were on a plant hunting expedition in a valley of the Himalaya Mountains. The scene of action was laid largely in wild places virtually geographically identical with those which are being searched today for species of plant life by Frank N. Meyer, an American field explorer working under commission of the Bureau of Plant Industry of the Department of Agricul
ture. Some of Mr. Meyer's experiences are akin to those of the three hunter naturalists whom Captain Reid represented as having been sent out on like errand by the authorities of the Kew Gardens of London.
The adventurous botanists of the old tale were seeking specimens to be dried and preserved for museum purposes. The adventurous botanist of the present tale cares nothing for the cut and dried. His is what David Fairchild of Washington, the Agricultural Explorer in Charge of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, calls "a living work."
It is the duty of the man now in a great desert of the Himalayan region to secure seeds or cuttings of plants, shrubs and trees which he considers worthy of introduction into the United States, and to get them quickly to Washington where the work of propagation almost instantly is started.
Explorer Meyer is today in a lonely land and before his mission is ended he will pass through still lonelier lands. His collecting journey began at St. Petersburg and it will end at some sea coast port of Eastern China. His trip already lias been successful enough to make it worth much more than the money it has cost. He has frozen and melted alternately as the altitudes have changed: he has encountered wild beasts and men nearly as wild; he has scaled glaciers and crossed chasms of dizzying depths; he has been the subject of the always alert suspicions of government officials and of strange peoples jealous of intrusions into their land—but he has found what he was sent for.
A plant hunter! Official and peasant are accustomed to the coming of hunters of wild beasts. They understand the lust of killing and the desire for danger which make men take long journeys into strange places. But a plant hunter!—It seems to them the thinnest pretense
to hide some design on the peace of the government or the community. The specimen bag must hold some strange instrument of destruction, the more deadly because it is unknown. The experiences of botanists in the Eastern mountains, though with an added element of real clanger, are like those of the peaceful opera glass ornithologist whose sanity is doubted and whose arrest is threatened by the country folk because he prefers to study the living bird rather than to kill it, fill it with cotton and arsenic, and to pierce it with wires for mounting in painful and grotesque attitude.
Admittedly the expression falls within the limits of what the objectors call the bromides, but it is the desire of David Fairchild, the Agricultural Explorer in Charge, and of his fellow laborers in field and Capital, to make such deserts as the United States has to blossom like the rose or, if not the rose, the pear, the apple, the orange, the pomegranate or the olive. The nature of much of the land which is under search today for plant treasures is stony and forbidding, places apparently for the thistle and the thorn, and it would appear that he who looks for fruitage there must be one who thinks "yea" the answer to the question of Scripture, and that grapes may be gathered of thorns and figs of thistles.
The explorer now in the Himalaya Mountains carries in his head a botanical chart of the United States. He finds a species of plant useful or ornamental, or a variety of a species, and by reference to the mental map he knows instantly in what part of the United States it has a chance to flourish and to prove a blessing. He gathers with full knowledge of the locality in which one day Americans may sit under the shade of a Himalaya tree or gather fruit from a Himalayan vine.
In the plant hunter's head there is also a weather map. He knows the sections of the United States where long periods of drought would wither quickly any form of introduced vegetation whose life is moisture. He knows the places where the rainfall is apt to be excessive and he knows where there are shadow and sunshine in about equal parts. His is a work of selection, and it can be said that in
Frank M. Mi-.yer. The Explorer, In The Himalaya Mountains.
large part the judgment of the plant finder has been justified by results.
Americans in the dry country of the Southwest before long may pick from the dooryard trees cherries whose flavor and juiciness will make them forget the yearnings which they have had in the June time for the fruit of the tree which shadowed the New England home. Explorer Meyer found a wild species of cherry (Prunus microcorpa) growing and thriving on the dry mountain sides of Southern Chinese Turkestan. Perhaps in truth it must be called a bush rather than a tree for it is bush shaped and its height is not over ten feet. This cherry soon will be introduced into America.
In passing through the villages along the line of his journey it is Mr. Meyer's habit to visit the fruit and vegetable stalls of the market places. While in Geok-Tcpe, Turkestan, he found a smooth skinned apricot on sale. It is as smooth as the nectarine and its color is a pale yellow. It is a juicy, delicious fruit known locally as the Slew-abrikose. Smooth apricots from the American grower's point of view, are things much to be desired, and this particular fruit the explorer found to possess superior qualities of flavor. He found out where it grew and today under care of the experts in Washington the apricot is under "process of propagation" and ultimately it will be sent to the American apricot lands where the hope is it will flourish and yield abundantly.
The history of the introduction of new kinds of alfalfa into the United States with a view to proper selection and distribution, so that the proverbial benefaction of making two blades of grass grow where one grew before may be outdone, has been written again and again in agricultural history, but the search is never over. Explorer Meyer is looking for new kinds of alfalfa, kinds which may prove to be better adapted to the soil of some parts of the United States than those which already have been tried.
No grass and no grain is too humble to escape the plant hunter's attention. To Washington from the mountains near Bacharden, Turkestan, has been sent a
wild grass, apparently a species of wild rye, and when under the gentle ministrations—plant lovers are always gentle handed and gentle hearted — of the Capital botanists the promise of the rye reaches fulfillment the work of distribution will be begun, and it may be that through it some of the country's waste places will come to a green redemption.
Travelers agree, Mr. Fairchild says, that the most beautiful tree in Turkestan and perhaps one of the most beautiful in the world is the Karakatch. It is a species of elm, the Ulmus campestris umbraculifera, the shade bearer. Wrord has come from Mr. Meyer that this tree eminently is fitted for planting in large numbers in the hot, irrigated sections of the United States. This introduction will be pushed in regions where trees of adequate shade are desired, but where experiment has shown in the past that many species have failed to respond to irrigation.
From the foothills of the Himalayas has come a drought resisting species of poplar. In the arid and semi-arid regions of the western states where irrigation is not possible, or as yet has not been accomplished, there is a demand for shade trees for home yards and parks. Attempts have been made frequently to find a promising subject. Explorer Meyer thinks that in this poplar, the Popufus pruinosa, he has found something which will grow and give grateful shade to the families living in dry regions where the cold of winter is not too severe.
Seeds and cuttings of scores of species of plant life have come out of the country already traversed by the American plant explorer. Perhaps if one in twenty of the discoveries upon introduction into this country proves to be of lasting value the results will be worth the labor, the disregard of danger, the personal devotion to duty of the hunter, and the money spent by the government which commissioned him to the search.
The explorer of the deserts must be a botanist, but he must do much more than is done by the ordinary botanist of the field. He must know what many men who are botanists only do not know, how to get his material with the germ of life still active across deserts, countries, continents and oceans. He cannot be sure always that his collections will stand the long journey to Washington from the point of gathering. In this case frequently he must send them ahead of him to the coast town from which ultimately he intends to take his departure, there to be planted and to grow until he can regather them from the soil to make them his jealously watched companions on the last stage of his journey.
As soon as consignments of cuttings or seeds are received in Washington by David Fairchild they are turned over to the entomologist who examines them carefully for insect pests. Then quickly they are given to a pathologist who examines them for diseases and then if all is well with the importations they are put into alien but kindly soil "and started to growing."
The Bureau of Plant Industry for several years has been at work introducing new and promising species of vegetation into the United States. What has it done? Improved alfalfa, thick growing, and enriching fields to which the plant was a stranger, are one answer to the question. Alfalfas have been brought to
this country from the Andes, the Himalayas, the Gobi Desert and from Australia, in all perhaps seventyfive kinds. Experiments in interbreeding have been successful and the American alfalfa range rapidly is being extended.
From Southern California and from Arizona recently there have been sent to market five tons of dates, the fruit of palms introduced and grown successfully by the exploring scientists. In Florida the mango industry is today upon a commercial footing. Explorer Meyer now in the Himalaya Mountains, some years ago found in China a puckerless and seedless persimmon. He sent cuttings to Washington where they were grown sueThen they were shipped to the Southern United States
cessfully. places in
where it was believed they could be cultivated. Today ten acres of puckerless, seedless persimmons are under cultivation in Georgia by one of the largest fruit growers in America, a man who has faith in the word of the plant finders.
Out of China recently the government's explorers brought a new cherry, which was sent' to Southern California where it took kindly to soil and climate and gave return for the work expended by a crop of fine, marketable fruit which was ready for the picking two weeks in advance of any species of cherry known to the state. A red currant, the Ribes petraeum, brought from the Altai Mountains has proved in St. Petersburg to be