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The Days of DDT and Roses

Articles: The Days of DDT and Roses

As part of our continuing celebration of silver, honoring twenty-five years of Pacific Horticulture, our editor offers some thoughts on the origins of the magazine and its contribution to Western horticulture. This is the first of two articles.

In the Journal of the California Horticultural Society, a precursor to Pacific Horticulture launched in 1940, a record can be found of changes in Western gardening brought about by weather patterns, war, technology, the local economy, global ecology, and the vagaries of fashion. From its pages, I have an impression of innovations throughout the twentieth‑century and how they affected gardening and horticulture. Among the changes was a transition from preoccupation with the science and technology of plant breeding and disease control, to a greater interest in what nature herself has to offer gardeners. This should not astonish us; after all, it follows a general movement towards the use of organic methods among gardeners and increasing environmental concern among Americans at large. Much was written in early issues of the Journal on hybridizing daffodils, primulas, delphiniums, and other popular garden plants, but by the 1970s gardeners were inclined to stand back and let the plants get on with it. Pollination, discussed in the Journal by John Kipping, a naturalist, was by then more generally accepted as a natural function of plants and insects that gardeners were reluctant to discourage.

In 1940, the first year of the Journal, a daffodil conference was reported that attracted attendees from Oregon and British Columbia, as well as from Northern and Southern California. Lockwood and Elizabeth de Forest, of Santa Barbara, spoke on using daffodils in the garden; Grant Mitsch a nurseryman from Oregon, spoke on new daffodil varieties; others contributed on hybridizing, and on controlling pests and diseases. During the discussion that followed, most time was devoted to hybridizing and disease control; a contributor explained that growers in Washington were attempting to control narcissus fly with an oil emulsion spray containing lead arsenate.

The insecticide known as DDT was patented in Switzerland by JR Geigy in 1940, and in the US in 1943. In July 1946, EO Essig, entomologist at the University of California, Berkeley, among other contributors lauding the new insecticide, described DDT’s benefits for gardeners in the Journal. He ended with this chilling sentence: “Many birds are readily killed by eating insects that have been poisoned by consuming DDT.” Nevertheless, here, as everywhere else, its arrival was greeted with enthusiasm, and Paul Mueller, who first recognized the insecticidal properties of DDT, was awarded the Nobel Prize (Medicine) in 1948. But dead birds and other unanticipated effects of DDT’s use caused widespread alarm. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring marked the beginning of the end for the Geigy company’s bonanza; in it Carson condemned DDT for its damage to wildlife and the environment in general. Between 1970 and 1980 the dangers of DDT were universally recognized, and its use was eliminated in all but Third World countries.

Marjorie Schmidt. Author's photograph
Marjorie Schmidt. Author’s photograph

The herbicide 2‑4‑D, also subsequently banned, was favorably commented on in the Journal, but founding members of the California Horticultural Society were not so beholden to what was then thought to be scientific progress as to neglect the natural world; some were gardening with native plants, too. In 1941, Marjorie Schmidt wrote on California Natives for California Gardens, but in that second volume of the Journal, hers was a quiet voice. In the same year, editor Sydney Mitchell, compared the garden value of native irises with beardless irises world‑wide, and gradually the number of advocates for native plants increased.

Ralph Cornell, a landscape architect in Los Angeles who contributed to the Journal on garden design, was another powerful voice for the landscape use of native plants. His Conspicuous Californian Plants is the more eloquent for his superb photographic treatment of the plants; a copy of the book given to the society launched a lending library that was a feature of every one of its meetings until well into the 1990s. Cornell died in April 1972, and so revered was he that the October issue of the Journal that year, guest edited by Fredrick Boutin, was devoted to Cornell and his work, with several pages of his photographs reproduced in color.

Willis Linn Jepson, professor of botany at the University of California, Berkeley, contributed an appreciation of Carl Purdy that was published posthumously in the Journal in January 1947 (Jepson died in November 1946). In it he spoke of Purdy’s world-wide reputation, and how the regard in which his fellow Californian was held by gardeners gave Jepson access to homes and gardens throughout England. William Robinson (1838–1935), an influential writer on gardening who had visited California and met Purdy, was Jepson’s host at Gravetye Manor, his home in Sussex, on several occasions. It was, I conclude, largely to record his gratitude to Purdy for this that the note on him was written. It is chastening, however, and pertinent to my theme, to recall that Purdy’s reputation among gardeners was due largely to his activities as a collector of plants from the wild. In this he was so energetic that later writers (Stan Farwig and Vic Girard, Pacific Horticulture, Spring ’81) condemned Purdy for the very activities that had made his reputation here and abroad among gardeners of an earlier generation.

Victor Reiter Jr. Author's photograph
Victor Reiter Jr. Author’s photograph

Victor Reiter Jr, a founding member of the California Horticultural Society and one of its stalwarts until his death in 1986, wrote on many, always well-considered, aspects of the garden. His two-part contribution called On the Dry Wall (October ’41 and January ’42) about the early years of his fascination with alpine plants is as entertaining as it is informative. Later he recalled the society’s beginnings for the twenty‑fifth anniversary of the Journal. He described the first meeting of concerned gardeners following the big freeze of December 1932. James West, Reiter says, was the first to recover from “garden melancholia” brought on by the severe weather; he began recording the weather’s effects and, with Mrs Cabot Brown and Mrs Helen Van Pelt, arranged a symposium on the frost, which took place at the Cabot Brown home in San Francisco.

The evolution from this informal gathering to the California Horticultural Society in its present form is described fully in the Journal (1964, p. 90) and there is little to be gained by repeating it. One item, however, relating strongly to the launching of the Journal, must be included. Reiter names members of the first Publications Committee, mentioning leaflets that were the outcome of its first effort, and goes on:

The Society’s greatest gift to horticulture, the Journal of the California Horticultural Society, was to spring from these leaflets.

Sydney B Mitchell. Photograph by Roy Oliphant
Sydney B Mitchell. Photograph by Roy Oliphant

The primary architect of our society was unquestionably the late Professor Sydney B Mitchell, Dean of the Library School at the University of Califor nia, Berkeley, and fondly called the Dean of Western Horticulture. He was our first president and first editor of our Journal, but most of all, it was his sober, organized judgment and his high standards which formulated and guided the basic policies underlying the California Horticultural Society. Without Dr Mitchell and his wife the transition from the Plant Materialists into our present society could never have materialized.

This encomium also appeared as the epigraph to an article by Bob Cowden in Pacific Horticulture (Summer ’84) on the writings of Sydney Mitchell. Having skipped forward several years and refreshed my memory with Cowden’s words I’m reminded that, in addition to editing the Journal, Mitchell wrote three books about gardening in the West: Gardening in California, From a Sunset Garden, and Your California Garden and Mine. Cowden, an astute and perceptive reader, notes Mitchell’s fine turn of phrase, giving several examples. He also sees similarities between these felicities and others lingering in passages in the then current edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book.

If I were to continue digging into the journals as deeply as I have so far, the editor would protest that little space is left for others in this issue. I must therefore move quickly through several volumes and many worthy contributions: Elmer Purdy, son of Carl, on color forms in Rhododendron occidentale; Lester Rowntree, Louis Edmunds, and others, on Spring Wildflowers; WE Lammerts on Double Flowering Leptospermum Hybrids; EO Essig on Peony Raising in Berkeley; Edgar Anderson and Earl Hornback on A Genetical Analysis of Pink Daffodils, and many other well-known names and intriguing subjects. There is much to be learned from perusal of these journals; anyone engaged in horticultural research, or simply with a taste for the historical in gardening, should make a bee‑line for the Helen Crocker Russell Library at Strybing Arboretum, where a collection of them is maintained.

I must forego mention of most of the worthy editors of these years, deserving as they are of special praise for perseverance in educing such fine manuscripts from unpaid and tardy authors. In this way I am able to conclude this part of the story with mention of Owen Pearce, editor of the Journal for perhaps the lengthiest period of any volunteer in the job. Pearce, chairman of the editorial committee at the resignation as editor of Donald R Pratt, took over as acting editor for the January ’61 issue, after which PH (Jock) Brydon, director of Strybing Arboretum, became editor with a special issue devoted to rhododendrons. With the January ’64 issue, Pearce took over from Brydon the task he would fulfill faithfully for the next eleven years. His term as editor saw, in the January ’68 issue, a change of title to the California Horticultural Journal. It was now published by the Pacific Horticultural Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation representing the Strybing Arboretum Society and the Western Horticultural Society as well as the original publishers, the California Horticultural Society. The Southern California Horticultural Institute (now the Southern California Horticultural Society) joined the Foundation in 1972, extending the Journal’s reach to southern California. Pearce remained editor through the inception of the most recent manifestation of the journal, Pacific Horticulture, resigning with the publication of its second issue, in April ’76.




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