"Taming" Wild Vegetables
The difference between our cultivated varieties and the wild forms from which they came is due only in part to the fact that the cultivated kinds are sown in rows, fertilized, weeded, and otherwise given favorable growing conditions.
If wild forms are planted and given the best of care, the plants might grow somewhat larger than in the wild or make somewhat larger yields, but they would still be "wild" plants. Merely continuing to plant all the seed from such plants year after year, and tending the plants carefully, would not make "cultivated" plants of them.
What, then, did prehistoric man do to improve wild plants? And how are our plant scientists any better at the job of improving plants than our prehistoric ancestors were?
The important distinction between "wild" and "cultivated" plants is that wild plants perpetuate themselves under conditions of chance pollination and natural selection only. Our cultivated plants are the result of innumerable generations of either purposeful or unwitting selections by man. Man adds nothing to the hereditary make-up of the world of plants, but does take advantage of the endless diversity that Nature provides.
Prehistoric man noticed that some plants were better for his use than others; so naturally those were the ones he chose, century after century. Since he planted seeds of plants or fruits that he had chosen to use, he more or less automatically practiced plant selection of a sort.
Geneticist Speeds Plant Improvement
Thousands of years of discarding what is undesirable to man and propagating what is desirable to him developed our cultivated plants. For man’s needs they are considered highly superior to their wild ancestors, but in getting certain qualities desired by man we have unwittingly sacrificed other qualities for example, the ability to survive under adverse conditions.
By choice of parent plants, controlling pollination, and wise selection and testing of the plant offspring through successive generations, the modern plant breeder may obtain, in a few years, especially desired combinations of existing hereditary factors that might not be found in the wild in hundreds or even thousands of years. But he must first find somewhere in the world the parent plants that already possess the hereditary factors needed.
The geneticist creates no new factors, but he does invaluable rearranging of existing factors. He is rapidly finding factors that no one has known about, and learns how they are inherited, so that plant improvement can be carried forward speedily.
The art and practice of plant improvement goes back to prehistoric
times, but the science of how specific characters are inherited was born since
the birth of many men now living. We could still make plant progress without
the science of genetics, but it would be too slow and costly.
Origin of Cultivated Plants, by A. de Candolle; Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants, edited by U. P. Hedrick; Botanical-Geographic Principles of Selection, by N. I. Vavilov; and The Origin of Indian Corn and Its Relatives, by P. C. Mangelsdorf and R. G. Reeves.
"Earth’s Most Primitive People," by Charles P. Mountford, National Geographic Magazine, January, 1946.
"Exploring Frozen Fragments of American History," by Henry B. Collins, Jr., in the May, 1939, National Geographic Magazine.
"Further Explorations in the Land of the Incas," by Hiram Bingham, and "Staircase Farms of the Ancients," by 0. F. Cook, May, 1916, National Geographic Magazine
"The World in Your Garden," by W. H. Camp, National Geographic Magazine, July, 1947.
The many articles on plants and plant hunting which have appeared in the National Geographic Magazine include the following by David Fairchild:
"Hunting Useful Plants in the Caribbean," December, 1934;
"Hunting for Plants in the Canary Islands," May, 1930;
"New Plant Immigrants," October, 1911; and
"Our Plant Immigrants," April, 1906; also
"Peacetime Plant Hunting About Peiping," by P. H. and J. H. Dorsett, October, 1937; and
"Hunting the Chaulmoogra Tree," by Joseph F. Rock, March, 1922.
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