In Fruits and Plains, the late Philip J. Pauly explores the trajectory of American horticultural practices from the “degeneration” debates of the eighteenth century to the “invasive species” debates of the 1990s, examining the tensions between horticulturalists’ desires for exotic plants and useful crops and their fears about alien pests. Both a broad survey of American history as seen through one field of science and an ambitious collection of plant histories and primary source materials, Fruits and Plains still sustains a coherent narrative and remains grounded in the language and experiences of its historical actors.
Much of the richness of this history grows from its actors’ mixing of literal and metaphorical considerations of the word “culture” as it arises out of the interactions of humans, plants, and pests. The central, recurring theme of the book might best be summed up by J. Horace McFarland’s question, “What is America, anyhow?” McFarland posed the question in the 1920s as a rebuke of Alfred Kinsey’s (yes, that Kinsey!) defense of rigid federal pest controls on foreign plant imports, designed to protect a “Utopian America” (p. 162). Pauly shows the high stakes of such debates. Organized as a series of vignettes—including the introduction of “the Hessian fly” during the Revolutionary War, prairie reforestation campaigns in the mid-nineteenth century, the emergence of federal seed-exchange programs, the seizure and burning of Japanese cherry trees in 1910, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century rural and urban landscape gardening movements—the book reveals how horticulturalists take a variety of technological positions when faced with pest invasions or failed crop introductions.
Pauly offers the most succinct categorization of these positions when he describes the responses to “the problem of the prairies” as falling into three general forms: restoration, Americanism (or nativism), and cosmopolitanism (p. 83). Restorationists argued for restoration of “primitive forests” and species reservoirs. Americanists sought to establish a national silva by transporting America’s finest tree species to barren or deforested areas. Cosmopolitans wanted to import the most exotic or useful plants from abroad. Within each of these positions horticulturalists further disagreed about what was “native” and therefore to be restored, what boundaries determined what was “American,” and what foreign species would enrich or threaten the country.
Environmental historians might recognize in this triad of positions resonances with the more familiar and troublesome concepts of wilderness, pastoralism, and civilization. However, through his focus on heterogeneous networks of gentleman amateurs, nurserymen, scientists, and government [End Page 921] officials, Pauly takes these cultural preoccupations with humankind’s place in nature in new directions, bringing them into conversation with other emerging areas of interest in the history of life sciences, environmental and agricultural history, and American history. Historians concerned with demonstrating or refuting American (or Californian) exceptionalism will find interesting the moments when horticulturalists faced difficulty establishing a sense of nativism, given the changing political boundaries and varied biogeography of the United States: “Nativity could be assessed locally, regionally, nationally, or continentally” (p. 263).
Scholars interested in what Edmund Russell has called “evolutionary history” will appreciate how Pauly continually foregrounds the agency of plants and pests in the policies and practices of horticulturalists. One vivid example can be seen in the passages on the “only lightly domesticated” pasture grasses. The introduction of Johnsongrass in the South, which “crowded out other plants” and “would survive and spread on [its] own indefinitely,” was “a great boon” to farmers raising grazing animals, while “an unmitigated evil” to cotton planters. Pauly notes that the grass’s capacity to conquer and transform its local environs was such that federal agricultural scientists advised farmers that “their best course of action when faced with a field of Johnson grass was to adapt themselves to it” (pp. 115–19).
If Fruits and Plains can be faulted for anything, it is for having taken on a large and heterogeneous swath of materials, and at times the reader may wonder how or whether the many stories of culturing plants collected here directly relate to one another. Yet the...