Today we celebrate a one of a kind American plantsman and breeder who gave us the red-fleshed Pink Pearl apple.
We'll also learn about the German nurseryman and breeder who we know from a ubiquitous feather-reed grass.
We’ll hear some lovely botanical poems from a New England poet.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a cookbook written around 23 essential vegetables.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a story about the Bicentenary at Kew.
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November 27, 1872
Today is the birthday of a lifelong American plantsman and master plant breeder Albert Etter.
Albert was a born horticulturist. When most children are mastering the alphabet and learning to tie their shoes, Albert was learning to graft and hybridize plants. By the time Albert was 12, his plant breeding was focused on dahlias and strawberries. His local newspaper in California reported that he had over 200 varieties of dahlia, thanks to his efforts in cultivating new hybrids.
Growing frustrated that his school books taught him nothing about nature, Albert dropped out at 14. Albert continued his breeding efforts and helped out on local farms. Thanks to the Homestead Act, Albert acquired 640 acres of free land on his 21st birthday. The land needed clearing, and the acidic soil required improvement. Thanks to Albert’s regular planting of cover crops like clover and vetch, his soil gradually improved. With his brothers’ help, Albert's place became increasingly self-sufficient, adding a lumber mill and raising Angora goats. Albert often wrote that his ranch provided him everything he needed - except flour and sugar. Over time, Albert’s ranch became known as Ettersburg.
Although Albert’s early work with strawberries brought him fame, his work with apples made him a legend. In his apple breeding, Albert focused on a unique and relatively unknown apple appropriately called Surprise. The Surprise apple was pink-fleshed and hailed from Kazakhstan. Over his lifetime, Albert created hundreds of apple varieties descended from the Surprise apple. In total, Albert crossbred 15,000 apples and a little over ten percent of those warranted additional experimenting.
Albert accelerated his apple-breeding efforts through top grafting. Here's how that works:
- After pollinating an apple blossom with another tree, Albert would place a bag over the flower and wait for the flower to produce an apple. (Albert’s living relatives still recall driving up to the Etter ranch and seeing an unusual sight: the orchard trees covered with little bags.)
- From the apple started inside a bag, Albert would plant the apple seeds.
- After observing the young seedlings, Albert selected the ones with the best fruit for grafting.
- By grafting new apple seedlings on a tree, the seedling bears fruit in just three to five years instead of waiting for ten to twenty years for fruit without grafting.
In an article, Albert wrote:
“How many is 15,000 apple trees?
Apple trees are usually planted 30 feet apart in the row.
Fifteen thousand would plant a row a trifle over 35 miles long.
[In contrast,] The little seedlings [that I grow,] are top-grafted on large trees, sometimes two or three hundred on a tree.”
One of Albert’s signature methods was to return again and again to the wild, foraging for new breeding stock. Now, many trained plant breeders of his era scoffed at Albert's use of wild crabapples. But to Albert, nature provided a bountiful supply of worthy strains. While some academic experts in his field dismissed Albert as a hillbilly, others recognized his cultivated wisdom honed through his love of experimenting, his unbridled innovation, and his fantastic recall for the minute details of his experiment station.
The public came to know just a handful of Alberts apples in the twilight of his life. In 1944, six years before his death, six Etter apple creations finally went mainstream after appearing in The California Nursery Company catalog: Alaska, All Gold, Humboldt Crab, Jonwin, Pink Pearl, and Wickson's Crab. Three years later, Albert’s Crimson Gold was released.
Today, the Pink Pearl is the most famous of Albert’s creations. With its red flesh and beautifully blushed, golden, translucent outer skin, the Pink Pearl remains a sensation.
In 1950, Albert died on a Sunday in November on his ranch near Ettersburg in Humboldt County. He was 78.
Now, some 70 years after his death, the race is on to find any remaining Etter apple trees before they reach the end of their lifespan. Tom Hart, of Humboldt Cider Company, is putting together a magnificent repository of Albert Etters apple trees. Tom’s goal is to take cuttings from any discovered Etter apple trees, graft them, and build an orchard - a living tribute - dedicated to the great Albert Etter.
November 27, 1970
Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of the revered German plant breeder, writer, and garden designer Karl Foerster.
Karl was born into an intellectual and accomplished family. His father was an astronomer, and his mother was a famous painter.
Many gardeners are surprised to learn that Karl began gardening at seven after obtaining an apprenticeship. At the age of eight, Karl entered a professional gardening program and studied there for 11 years.
When Karl turned 18, he took over his family’s Berlin nursery, which was a bit of a mess. Karl streamlined the business by simplifying his plant inventory. Although Karl loved plants, he was especially drawn to tough, low-maintenance, hardy perennials. Karl used three factors to determine whether a plant would be sold in his nursery: beauty, resilience, and endurance.
Karl’s high standards brought success to the nursery.
When he turned 24, Karl moved his nursery to Potsdam. There, Karl married a singer and pianist named Eva, and together they had one daughter.
Knowing Karl’s high standards of plants, imagine how exacting Karl was as a plant breeder. Yet, Karl never pollinated flowers by hand. He wanted nature to reign supreme.
Today, Karl Foerster grass is a recognized staple in many gardens and landscapes. The story goes that Karl was on a train when he spied the grass along the tracks. To seize the chance to collect the specimen, Karl pulled the emergency brake, stopped the train, and then quickly collected the specimen that now bears his name. While gardeners have heard of Karl Foerster Grass or Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis), many fail to realize the grass was successful because it first met Karl’s high standards for perennials. Karl Foerster grass was the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2001. And, Overdam is a variegated version of Karl Foerster grass.
Karl’s plant performance expectations and his appreciation for low maintenance spaces with year-long seasonal interest helped shape the New German Garden Style of garden design. A Karl Foerster garden had some signature plants: grasses, delphinium, and phlox. Naturally, all of these plants were favorites in Karl’s breeding work.
Karl once wrote,
“A garden without phlox is not only a sheer mistake but a sin against summer."
And he also wrote,
“Grasses are the hair of mother earth.”
Karl was an excellent speaker and writer. His books include these enticing titles: From the Flower Garden of the Future and Blue Treasures in Garden.
During WWII, Karl and his nursery were in the wrong place at the wrong time. To his peril, Karl kept his Jewish friends employed all through the war. Although the war officially ended in Potsdam, the nursery and the rest of East Germany fell under the control of the Soviets. Incredibly, Karl’s nursery ended up being the sole provider of garden perennials for all of East Germany.
As Karl’s work is translated from German into other languages, we continue to learn more about his fascinating career.
The garden publisher and writer Thomas Fischer wrote this about Karl Foerster:
"It wasn’t until I made a trip to Germany in the fall of I993 that I finally found the mother lode of Foerster delphiniums… Exercising superhuman self-restraint, I bought only two, ...two that Foerster himself considered among his best; ‘Berghimmel,’ sky blue with a white “eye” — the contrasting center of the flower — and, for balance, ‘Finsteraarhorn,’ deep gentian blue with a black eye.
Back home, ...in late June, the buds opened: pure, ravishing, longed-for blueness. Delphiniums that Karl Foerster had named over sixty years ago were blooming in my garden. After the flowers had gone by, I cut them back, happy to wait a year for their reappearance. As it turned out, I had to wait only a few weeks: they bloomed again, and again, and again.
That did it. Two delphiniums were not enough. I dispatched a letter … Would they consider shipping plants to the United States, providing one had the proper permit? Yes, they would. Off went an order for twenty-eight delphiniums, plus a few other odds and ends. (You have to grow something with your delphiniums.)”
For his work, Karl won many honorary awards. Karl lived to the ripe old age of 96. In total, Karl spent nearly nine decades of gardening.
It was Karl Foerster who said,
“In my next life, I’d like to be a gardener once again.
The job was too big for just one lifetime.”
November 27, 1824
Today is the birthday of the New England poet Phebe Ann Holder.
In addition to her religious poems, Phebe wrote about the natural world. Gardeners delight in her poems for spring and fall.
Phebe’s A Song of May recalls the flowers of spring:
The fragrant lily of the vale,
The violet's breath on passing gale.
Anemones mid last year's leaves,
Arbutus sweet in trailing wreaths,
From waving lights of a forest glade
The light ferns hide beneath the shade.
— Phebe Ann Holder, New England poet, A Song of May
Phebe’s A Song of October celebrates the beauty of fall:
The softened light, the veiling haze,
The calm repose of autumn days,
Steal gently over the troubled breast,
Soothing life's weary cares to rest.
— Phebe Ann Holder, New England poet, A Song of October
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2015, and the subtitle is 60 Recipes to Enjoy Your Homegrown Produce.
In this cookbook, Tobias and Oliver focus on 23 rockstar vegetables you can grow in your own sweet garden. These 23 vegetables include eggplant, cauliflower, beans, broccoli, mushrooms, asparagus, peas, fennel, cucumbers, potatoes, corn, squash, chard, carrots, peppers, parsnips, radishes, beets, spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, zucchini, and onions.
This book is incredibly versatile, and there’s something for everyone, whether you are a vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore. Standout recipes include creamy pea soup with bacon foam, stuffed zucchini rolls, Hungarian goulash, beet pizza, and an Asian chard and honey duck sandwich.
This book is 176 pages of growing, cooking, and eating vegetables - a top 23 list of them - that guides you through some incredibly easy and versatile recipes for everyone at the table.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
November 27, 1959
On this day, the Edmonton Journal wrote a little article about the Bicentenary at Kew:
“Less than ten miles from the heart of London lies an area of nearly three hundred acres in which color, fragrance, and birdsong are the companions of research, learning, and economics. Here the lover of plants can wander to his heart's delight while the botanist studies new and hardier strains of plants and the ecologist determines their value to man.
It is officially known as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, or to most persons Kew Gardens.
Kew Gardens owes their origin to a fancy of Princess Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, who in 1759 founded a botanical garden in the grounds at Kew House, now long since demolished.
Little is known of the early formation of the gardens except that the Princess received encouragement from the Earl of Bute, an enthusiastic botanist who lived at Kew. Under Bute’s direction, the garden soon became a recognized scientific entity, although it remained separate from the Princess' gardens. Later the two gardens were united, but the name "Kew Gardens" has remained ever since.
In 1841 Kew Gardens was presented to the British nation by Queen Victoria, and their functions were then outlined as scientific research, cultivation of plants from all parts of the world, propagation of useful plants for all countries of the Empire, furnishing the government with general information on botanical subjects and the instruction of the public. It is on this five-fold basis that Kew has carried on to our own time.
The herbarium is perhaps the most amazing part of Kew. It is devoted to the taxonomy or the identification and classification of plants. Some six million sheets of plant specimens are preserved and grouped by class, orders, families, genera, species, and varieties. The files of this priceless collection were removed to safety during the war.
Kew has become a mecca for botanists worldwide and a great guide to botanical knowledge. Soon after the founding of Kew, the practice was established of sending out a botanist on every voyage of discovery from Britain.
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