Thursday, June 16, 2011


In the 1630’s Holland’s economy – at that time one of the largest economies in the world – was very nearly dashed on the rocks of a speculative frenzy that created paper fortunes overnight and just as quickly ruined untold lives. 

In modern economic terms their economy was riding a bubble, a bubble which burst with astounding speed and ruthless force.  What was the cause of the bubble?  What could drive the usually stoic, stolid and staid (and all those other st~ words which basically mean “northern European” and “boring”) Dutch mad with greed?  What could have caused these devout Calvinists to forget that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?  (Scratch that last one – it’s actually much harder to find anyone who remembers that one).

The answer is tulip bulbs.

At the height of the craziness a single tulip bulb – Semper augustus ­ sold for 10,000 guilders, the going price at the time for the finest canal houses.

Michael Pollan covers “Tulipomania” (as this episode has become known) in The Botany of Desire, and it is chronicled in more detail elsewhere.  There is considerable debate about how big the speculative bubble was, and how great a threat it posed to the Dutch economy at that time.  I tend to side with those who believe it posed a dire threat.  Makes a better story that way.

We know now that it was all caused by a virus.  Tulip petals have two sets of pigments, a base color (usually white or yellow) and then a brighter color.  Sometimes a virus attacks the brighter color, revealing streaks of the lighter color pigment beneath.  These “color breaks” created color-swirled flowers of breathtaking beauty, and could be reproduced clonally from offshoots of the bulb.  Dutch gardeners would spread colored pigment on their soil in hope of inducing color breaks, and employed many of the tools and methods of alchemists in hopes of creating the tulip that would make their fortune – with the same success rate alchemists enjoyed.

Of course when it was later discovered that color breaks are caused by a virus, a) they lost their allure and mystery, and b) tulip breeders immediately set about stomping out the virus.  Today tulips with true color breaks are rare but – thankfully – they can still be found.  Most of the tulips that drove the frenzy of the 1630s are lost to us, viewable only in paintings of the time.

Pollan’s point in discussing the tulip in The Botany of Desire is to explore how plants “use” human perceptions of beauty to get humans to expand their domain.

My point in discussing the tulip here is to explore human values, and play a game of “what if.”

For what was really at work here?  The preferment of a flower capable of expressing the tastes and fashions of the day.  Beauty as defined and executed by humans.  Beauty strictly for the sake of beauty.

I love flowers as much as the next guy.  But, especially in the case of tulips, at the end of the day we are talking about a flower – not flower as an enticement to pollination and therefore reproduction, but flower strictly as a decoration.

Perhaps that’s the exact moment when you know a particular economy or culture has too much money.

But for me it keeps coming back to this:  If we took the time and effort that has gone into breeding tulips that engender and reflect ever-changing human ideas of beauty and devoted one-tenth of those resources to breeding oaks. we’d have no soil erosion, we’d use a tiny fraction of the fossil fuels we burn today, and we’d have no hunger.  We’d be happier, healthier, and more peaceful.

I realize none that counts for much as compared to the perfect spring flower border, but it’s a start.

Some day.  Some day there will be another speculative frenzy.  Some dude in Mississippi will pay the equivalent of a Manhattan condo for a single hybrid oak acorn from a parent tree that produces acorns early, often and with buttery sweetness, with an easy-cracking shell.

And he’ll have made a great deal.  That will be the day we get our priorities straight.

By the way, I much prefer wild tulips to any of the cultivars that drove Holland mad.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More from Morris

At the end of Robert Morris' 1927 address to the Northern Nut Growers Association, entitled EDIBLE ACORNS AS A FOOD FOR MAN, LIVESTOCK AND FOWLS Morris summarizes his correspondence with oak enthusiasts and experts of the day.  Some highlights (at least for me):

"Mr. Ernest H. Wilson, Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum at Jamaica Plain, Mass., sends me the following notes from 'Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants.' (pp. 479-82).

"... Q. alba Linn.  White Oak.  Northeast America.  The dried acorns are macerated in water for food by the natives on the Roanoke.  Acorns were dried and boiled for food by the Narragansetts.  Oak acorns were mixed with their pottage by the Indians of Massachusetts.  Baskets full of parched acorns, hid in the ground, were discovered by the Pilgrims December 7, 1620 (ed: talk about a day that will live in infamy!).  White oak acorns were boiled for "oyl" by the natives of New England. The fruit of some trees is quite pleasant to the taste, especially when roasted."

Wow.  Wow!  There's a lot of cool stuff in this little paragraph.  You might recall that I recently read Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and I remarked on how much damage the native people had done to the landscape in the process of raising corn, and wondered aloud why acorns didn't play a bigger role in the diet of either the indigenous people or the alien settlers - with the exception to one reference to a traveling party stopping for a meal of acorns.

In Philbrick's telling the Pilgrims uncover and steal a cache of corn - not acorns.  Now I need to go back and re-read that part to get the chronology right.  Native Americans did of course keep caches of corn buried, but they also cached large quantities of acorns - which have a much higher food value and would have been a much greater loss (and therefore a much greater crime on the part of the Pilgrims - religious refugees whose first considered act on this continent was the theft of food).

Something else happened on December 7, 1620.  Dorothy Bradford, wife of Plymouth Colony leader William Bradford, fell overboard (the Mayflower was at anchor in Plymouth Bay while a scouting party was ashore pilfering acorns and deciding where to locate the settlement).  Officially considered an accident, apparently there's always been some speculation that Dorothy, depressed after a long, harrowing journey during which many friends succumbed to disease, might have committed suicide.

Here's a tip, kids:  Early December is probably not the ideal time to show up in New England to establish a colony.

Moving on to the next correspondent:  The man who is universally referred to as Mr. H. Ness.  (To see previous posts enter Ness in the search bar above.)  J. Russell Smith calls him Mr. H. Ness.  Moriss calls him Mr. H. Ness.  I'm guessing his wife called him Mr. H. Ness.

My money was on a first name of Herman.  It's not.  It's much better than that.  His name was Helge Ness.  I think I'd go by "H" as well.  Here's what Morris had to say about ol' Helge:

"Mr. H. Ness, horticulturist of the Texas State Experiment Station published an article entitled 'Hybrids of the Live Oak and Overcup Oak" in the Journal of Heredity, Vol. 1X, No. 6, Washington, D. C., October, 1918 and has published subsequent notes making the comment that he has become impressed with the ease with which fertile hybrids may arise between species of oaks (Mr. Darwin, paging Mr. Charles Darwin, please report to Oak Watch for a new definition of species), even though their relationship be apparently quite distinct.  A number of second generation trees from the hybrids of Mr. Ness have been obtained and the notes should be added to any bibliography now being assembled bearing on the subject of acorns.  Mr. Ness says that, 'Because of the ease with which the hybridization of the live oak can be effected, the high fertility of its hybrids and other virtues already mentioned, to which, very likely, will be added improvement of the timber, there can be no doubt but that the breeding of new forms of oaks as here indicated has great economic and aesthetic possibilities.'"

Amen, Helge, Amen.

You might remember that Helge noticed something when live oaks were planted on the campus of Texas A & M (an area in which there were no other live oaks at that time):  The female flowers reach maturity a few years before the male flowers (insert your own joke here) and yet the live oaks started bearing acorns before the male flowers reached maturity... so where the heck was the pollen coming from? 

The answer, of course, was oaks of other "species," something Helge proved when he sowed those acorns and grew trees with a wide range of traits from pure live oak to pure overcup or pure post oak - and all combinations in between.  He then also realized that many of those hybrids grew extremely fast and produced acorns at a very early age.

In short, Helge saved the world.  Which I think should be the title of my book... so don't copy it.

Helge also probably ran afoul of the definition of species - at least as it has been applied to oaks.  We generally define a species as, "A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring."  By definition if two groups of organisms (live oak & post oak, live oak & overcup oak, etc) can interbreed and produce fertile offspring they are not, in fact, two separate species.  The are, at most, two different varieties of the same species. 

Oaks.  One species.  Thousands of varieties.  And the ability to feed the world.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Robert Morris 1927 NNGA Address Continued... Finally

A few months ago I started posting excerpts from the address of Mr. Robert T. Morris to the 1927 annual meeting of the Northern Nut Growers Association (with heartfelt thanks to reader David Olsen for supplying this amazing archival material).

To see the previous posts just enter Morris in the search box above.  To resume:

"We know that even from seedling oak trees the crop of acorns exceeds in food value the crop of corn which may be raised by tillage upon good land. When we come to making selection, hybridization and grafting, the history with the oak trees will presumably be almost precisely that which has applied to other fruit and nut trees.  Furthermore, some of the trees will produce heavy crops of mast upon rocky (soil) and upon soil that is too poor to grow crops of annual plants with tillage.

"Cattle, horses and fowls will eat acorns that are distasteful to man because of tannin, berberine and other extractives, but there are a number of species of oaks bearing so-called sweet acorns which are all ready for roasting and boiling or for being made into flour for man's uses.  Many of the species of oaks which bear bitter acorns are already used by man after artificial preparation which removes the elements interfering with the good taste of the acorns of this sort as well as sweet acorns are made into cakes and porridge.

"A well flavored oil is extracted from several species of acorns and in others the acorn cups alone produce such a high percentage of tannin and of coloring matter that the cups pay for the cost of gathering the harvest of nuts which have their own special value.  (Get your tannin for nothing and your nuts for free!)

"In the absence of extended study of acorns for food for man and his farm stock, I had thought best at this meeting to start the ball rolling by writing a number of authorities and obtaining reports which might be assembled.  I have learned, however, that Dr. J. Russell Smith has very complete and important notes relating to acorns, in manuscript form.  These will appear in a new book entitled Tree Crops, to be published shortly."

And so it was.

Do acorns really contain berberine?  I had never heard this before - in part because I had never heard of berberine before.

According to the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (is that an encyclopedia with just one eye?) edited by the wonderfully named Liberty Hyde Bailey, "Acorns, while rich in protein, fat and starches, contain in addition disagreeable elements like berberine or tannins in excess."

Get your berberine for nothing and your food for free?  Geez, you learn something new about acorns every day... but are left to wonder even more why I keep driving past field of corn and soybeans on my way to soccer games in the evenings, and not field of oaks.

Next time I'll quote from Morris's correspondence with other 1927 oak enthusiasts.  Our old friend Helge makes a cameo appearance.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Solace from Holy Scriptures

It has be a while since I have quoted from the Holy Scriptures of woody perennial agriculture, a.k.a. Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith.

I recently decided to branch out and read beyond the "The Oaks As A Forage Crop" and "The Acorns As Human Food" chapters and brush up on persimmon.

I came across two passages that gave me great comfort, for completely different reasons.

Here's the first (keep in mind that Tree Crops was originally published in 1929 and was revised in 1950):  "These trees have been subject to all the botanic and entomologic barbarities and fungus attacks of a long, hot humid summer of southeastern Asia.  Thus far, my trees have been attacked by no fungus and no insect save the Japanese beetle (to some extent), which fortunately we know how to handle (with DDT)."

Yes, a little squirt of that magic elixer will clear that right up.  Although personally I prefer a 2,4,5-T / 2,4-D cocktail instead.

Why does this give me solace?  Here's a man I consider to be a towering genius of our age, a man who was so far ahead of his time that by the time his ideas are heeded (out of dire necessity rather than out of wisdom and forethought) he will sadly have been forgotten, advocating the use of a chemical that is the Mr. Yuck poster child of the entire environmental movement.

Smith lived until 1966, the year in which I was born.  Silent Spring was published in 1962, and of course there was discussion about the safety of DDT before that.  Where would Smith have come down on the issue?  Obviously a man of his curiosity and intellect could process new facts and reach new conclusions.  However he was also a man who kept an eye on the greater good - or perhaps in the case the greater evil; the damage being done to our land by the farming of cereal row crops.  He was also a man who didn't seem to think in black and white absolutes (other than his bedrock belief that destroying or wasting our soil - the true wealth of our nation - was tantamount to treason) and probably would have been comfortable taking the position that the judicious use of DDT to fight periodic insect infestations of tree crops is better environmentally than annually dumping millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow grains.

In other words, he might easily have ended up on the "wrong" side of the issue, from the standpoint of the politically correct environmental doctrine.

His advocacy of planting exotics - like the Asian persimmon - or cross breeding exotic species with their American cousins would also be anathema to many in today's environtal movement from whom "native only" has become a mantra.

Increasingly my own thoughts are leading me astray from the current environmental orthodoxy.  And that is why I find some comfort - and perhaps a kindred spirit (although a kindred spirit with 100x the brain power and perhaps only by projecting my own inner struggles onto him) - in JR Smith.

The solace I derive from the second passage is not nearly as convoluted.  Again, here he's talking about Asian persimmons growing on his Virginia farm:  "My trees have been through the hot and cold waves of the three devilish spring seasons, 1945, 1946, and 1947.  They suffered less than did apples, peaches, and cherries, alongside.  Only highbush blueberries did better.  I should be quite satisfied to plant an orchard in Virginia or in Maryland, of the best varieties I have, if only I had the luck to be forty-five years old."

I will turn forty-five later this year.  It's comforting to know that a man who, at age 76 in 1950 had accomplished more in any given year than I will in my lifetime, would have considered himself to be lucky to be my age - felt like being 45 would have given him enough time to establish an orchard of a new tree crop and select the best varieties.

So it's time to get started.  Luckily oaks grow so fast I'll learn a lot in the 60 years I have remaining on this Earth.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pollan wrong again - but still brilliant

As I have said before, Michael Pollan is one of my heroes.  Through his books The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food he has done as much as anyone to re-connect people to their own personal food chains - and he has done so in an incredibly compelling and entertaining way.  He should be Secretary of Agriculture.

But he keeps getting oaks wrong.

Last year, when re-reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, I posted about how Pollan wrote that oaks had "refused the domestic bargain."  His point was that acorns haven't done anything to make themselves palatable to humans, who therefore have done nothing to help oaks expand their dominion - in the way that apples, corn or potatoes have struck the (perhaps Faustian) bargain of domestication with humankind.

I'm re-reading The Botany of Desire (which was the first in Pollan's plant/food books), and last night I came across this: "We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species.  Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated.  It takes two to perform thta particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out.  Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat.  Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel - which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter's)- that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.  The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans."

I get his overarching point (the guy is such a brilliant thinker and writer it would be hard not too).  The section of the book on apples is specifically about sweetness, and how the apple's sweetness enticed people to spread it from the Khazak mountains were it is thought to have originated.

Acorns are not sweet.  But they are a much more complete food source than are apples, and have sustained humankind for much longer.

Acorns are not too bitter for humans to eat.  Many are edible right off the tree.  Others require a minimal amount of leaching (boiling) - a lot less work than what is required to preserve apples in the form of sauce, jam or hard cider (my favorite form of apple).

"Try as they might...???"  People have put almost zero effort into "domesticating" the oak tree.  In part that's because it provided so for us so wonderfully for so long without "improvement."  In part that's because we forgot about oaks when we came under the thrall of corn, wheat, and rice.  Were we to devote 1/1,000,000th of the effort into to domesticating oaks that humankind put into domesticating the sorry, virtually inedible plants that become corn and potatoes, oaks could easily be our primary food source.


In the co-evolutionary give-and-take of domesticating a crop, the oak has more than held up its end of the bargain.  It's time for us to hold up ours.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I have heard and read some version of this story so many times and in so many places that it can only be apocryphal. 

A famous author is invited to speak to a class of aspiring writers.  As the students hunch over their notebooks, breathlessly waiting to record every word of wisdom and advice, the author saunters to the rostrum (half drunk in most versions I have heard, a la Hemingway or Faulkner), fixes the audience in his steely stare, and asks, "How many of you want to be writers?"

Eager faces all nod and every hand shoots up to the sky.

"Then why aren't you home writing?"

At which point the author walks out of the room.

I don't know if this ever happened, just like I don't know whether some philosophy major was ever given a final exam that consisted only of the simple question, "Why?" wrote, "Why not?" and turned in his two word blue book to great acclaim.

Apocryphal or not, urban legend or not, the story speaks to me.  I have not been writing, quite simply, because I have been selling.  And selling.  And selling some more.  (And by the way, let me take this opportunity to apologize to every customer who has called simply to order some tree tubes and has spent the next half hour talking about oaks - whether they wanted to or not.)

My absence from writing also coincides with the winning streak of Northfield U10 soccer, proving what I have always said:  at this age it's all about coaching.

But it's time to get back to writing.  I have a huge back log of topics to cover.

Besides, if you can't trust career advice from a drunken, fictional author, whose advice can you trust?