On this date, November 24, in 1859, Charles Darwin’s masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was published in London. Darwin was an avid reader of the horticultural literature of his time and his deep knowledge of domestication history (artificial selection) played a critical role in helping to explain the broader principle of natural selection to the world. A few brief excerpts from On the Origin of Species to illuminate this point:
“In plants the same gradual process of improvement, through the occasional preservation of the best individuals…may plainly be recognised in the increased size and beauty which we now see in the varieties of the heartsease, rose, pelargonium, dahlia, and other plants, when compared with the older varieties or with their parent-stocks. No one would ever expect to get a first-rate heartsease or dahlia from the seed of a wild plant. No one would expect to raise a first-rate melting pear from the seed of the wild pear… I have seen great surprise expressed in horticultural works at the wonderful skill of gardeners, in having produced such splendid results from such poor materials; but the art, I cannot doubt, has been simple, and, as far as the final result is concerned, has been followed almost unconsciously. It has consisted in always cultivating the best known variety, sowing its seeds, and, when a slightly better variety has chanced to appear, selecting it, and so onwards.” (Chapter 1, pages 36-37)
“There is no obvious reason why the principles which have acted so efficiently under domestication should not have acted under nature. In the preservation of favoured individuals and races, during the constantly-recurrent Struggle for Existence, we see the most powerful and ever-acting means of selection.” (Chapter 14, page 467)
Finally, the Arnold Arboretum has some wonderful species of wild pears in its collections on Peters Hill. Pictured below is the fruit of Pyrus bretschneideri (437-64*A) from last July.
–Ned Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum