GENERAL ARTICLES

A FRUITFUL REVOLUTION

GEORGE F. CHIPMAN August 15 1934
GENERAL ARTICLES

A FRUITFUL REVOLUTION

GEORGE F. CHIPMAN August 15 1934

A FRUITFUL REVOLUTION

GENERAL ARTICLES

GEORGE F. CHIPMAN

From the Siberian crab (left below) came these second cross apples (right).

A HANDFUL of tiny crab-apple seeds planted at the Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa, in 1887 by Dr. William Saunders was the spark which started a revolution in the breeding of new fruits for cold climates. Simmering for over forty years, the revolution is now spreading over the prairie provinces, is attracting world-wide attention among scientific plant breeders, and promises within the next generation to have a marked effect upon the social and economic development of the greater portion of Canada. Dr, William Saunders’s name is steadily rising in the scientific world and quite possibly, as a result of this peaceful revolution, may shine with a brilliance almost equalling that of his famous son, Sir Charles Saunders, who was voted a pension by Parliament and recently knighted for his work in breeding Marquis wheat.

The planting of this handful of crab-apple seeds in 1887 was but a minor item in the general programme of William Saunders’s lalxirs. Bom in England, he came to Canada in 1850 as a boy of 12, learned the drug business and became a highly successful druggist at London, Ontario. There he acquired a fruit farm and developed the hobby of breeding new fruits by hybridization or cross-pollination, and in the early eighties had become one of the world’s leading scientific fruit breeders, at that time an infant science.

Sir John Carling, Dominion Minister of Agriculture, engaged Saunders to study and report upon agricultural experiment work in the United State's, Great Britain and Continental Europe. His report so impressed the Government that in 1885 Carling engaged Saunders to organize a chain of experimental farm« across Canada, of which he remained director until he retired in 1911. He was a man of remarkable organizing ability and possessed of great foresight and imagination, and his name ranks high in the records of agricultural experimentation. It was he who organized the wheat breeding campaign which culminated in great economic achievement in the hands of his son, Charles.

Seeds from Russia

WHEN THE Experimental Farm system was organized in 1885 Saunders located two farms for the benefit of the newly settled prairies at Brandon, Manitoba, and Indian Head, Saskatchewan. It was characteristic of the man that even at that early date he visualized a large population on those treeless plains. He dreamed of a settlement that would enjoy cultivated fruits in abundance, and he set out to bring his dream to fulfillment. In the late eighties he sent upwards of 200 trees of the hardiest varieties of apples, including many Russian varieties, to be tested at the Brandon and Indian Head farms. In every case, however, those apple trees proved too tender for the vigorous prairie winters that at Brandon have registered fifty-two below zero and at Indian Head as low as fifty-five.

Nothing daunted, Saunders turned to Siberia, where a tiny crab apple (malus baccata) grows wild from Lake Baikal away up into Northern Siberia, where winter temperatures sometimes go to seventy-five below zero. The

fruit of that Siberian crab apple is one-half to threequarters of an inch in size, usually very bitter and astringent, but it is a true apple and ironclad in hardiness. It had never been previously used in any apple production campaign throughout the world, though Andrew Knight of England, the first scientific apple breeder, had demonstrated seventy years ahead of Saunders that it could be crossbred with cultivated apples. Mr. Knight had not recorded the fact as of practical value.

Saunders brought in from Russia a little seed of that Siberian crab apple and planted it in the autumn of 1887; and a number of the little trees which grew from the seed were sent to Brandon and Indian Head farms in 1889, where they proved equal to the most severe onslaughts of the prairie winters. Since Saunders’s day the Siberian crab has proved hardy all over the prairies, even as far north as Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, over 800 miles north of the United States border, and has smiled at seventy degrees below zero weather.

By June, 1894, Saunders knew that his Siberian crab apples were hardy on the prairies, and one of them at the Ottawa farm was fully budded and ready to bloom—and, by the way, it has bloomed every year since. He then set to work on his breeding programme. The buds on his Siberian crab tree he emasculated with tiny instruments, and removed and destroyed the stamens. He then covered the blooms with paper bags to prevent the visitation of bees or other pollen-bearing insects. At the same time, from the buds of McIntosh, Northern Spy, Wealthy and other commercial apples, he extracted the stamens and ripened and collected the pollen from them. On a warm morning when the pistils in the bagged blooms on the Siberian crab were in a sticky condition he applied to them this pollen and rebagged them once more. By this process he crossbred or mingled the blood strains of the Shakespeares of the cultivated commercial apple family with that of the hardy barbarian from Siberia.

In due course that autumn the hybridized blooms on the Siberian crab developed fruit showing no difference from the other tiny apples on the same tree that had not been cross-pollinated. The result of the breeding shows only in the children of the first generation.

Saunders believed that from this crossbred seed he would develop apple trees, some of which at least would bear fruit having the hardiness of the Siberian mother and the size and quality of the civilized, cultivated fathers: but, although he used twenty-one different big apples as fathers and produced from 1895 onward 800 hybridized apple trees from the Siberian mother tree, not a single one bore fruit larger than 1 Vi inches in diameter. Nor were these little apples of good eating quality. His experiment had produced only crab apples and consequently was an utter failure.

Undaunted by Failure

XJAD SAUNDERS followed the standard practice of -*• plant breeders throughout the world at that time he would have thrown up his hands, admitted his defeat, and destroyed his hybrid crab apples or kept them as mere curiosities. What led him to take the next, perhaps most revolutionary step in fruit-breeding history, may never he known. There was no precedent for it. Saunders and his successor in horticulture, W. T. Macoun, who was at that time his chief assistant, have passed to the great beyond, and so far as I knowr have left no records of the line of reasoning which led Saunders forward.

At any rate Saunders eventually had crab apples fourteen times the size of their Siberian mother; but, while not so astringent or bitter as their Russian parent, they were far from eating apples. He propagated trees from the best of them and sent them to Brandon and Indian Head, where many of them proved 100 per cent hardy and have since proved hardy practically all over the prairies. The best known of this first generation of Saunders’s crab apples are named Osman, Columbia, Prince, Robin, Charles, Pioneer and Tony. Some of them are equal in quality to the best standard commercial crab apples for jelly making and canning, and are being widely planted and proving very satisfactory even in the northern parts of the prairies.

Perhaps Saunders.in 1904 had heard of the rediscovery of Mendel’s breeding work with peas, which came to light in 1900 and which has been immortalized in the Mendelian principles of heredity. Upon this discovery in the last twenty-five years has been built the great science of genetics or heredity. Whether Saunders knew of this in 1904 seems doubtful, but if not, he followed in Mendel’s footsteps. He took the largest of these "first cross” crab apples bred from the Siberian mother and gave them what the scien-

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tists call a “second dose" of pollen from the same big commercial apple fathers.

Some of these “second cross” apples began to bear fruit in 1910. Dr. Saunders retired from the directorship of the Experimental Farm System in 1911 and died in 1914 at the age of seventy-six; but he lived to see several second cross apples, and in his last bulletin written in 1911 he described one of them, which he named Martin, as an apple 2y2 inches in diameter of fair eating -quality. This Martin apple was fifty times the size of its Siberian grandmother, and it inherited considerable of the palatable qualities of its father and grandfather. But what of its hardiness? How much of that important quality had it inherited? Ottawa winters in those days were too mild and are still too mild to test fruits for promiscuous prairie use.

Experiments Continued

AFTER Dr. Saunders’s retirement, W. T.

Macoun, as Dominion Horticulturist, was in charge of fruit-breeding work on the experimental farm system until his death in 1933. His chief assistant from 1914 onward was M. B. Davis, his successor and present Dominion Horticulturist. Under Macoun and Davis the Saunders apple-breeding project was continued. Of the second crosses, 223 trees fruited at the Ottawa farm, but none produced apples more than 2V2 inches in diameter though some were of very choice eating quality. The best of them were sent to the Morden Experimental Farm in Southern Manitoba for testing, and all proved fully hardy. But, curiously, it has developed that a combination of soil and climatic conditions have made the Morden district horticulturally by far the mildest part of the three prairie provinces; in fact, little if any more severe than Ottawa and not nearly so severe as even the Winnipeg district somewhat less than fifty miles to the north.

Steadily the second cross apples moved to the northward and were tested by private experimenters as far north as Prince All^ert in Saskatchewan. The test of these Saunders apples of the second generation are named Trail, Rosilda, Printosh, Piotosh, McPrince, Elkhom, Wapella. On my own experimental farm at Winnipeg as well as generally throughout the northern parts of the prairies, these second cross apples have proved to be very much hardier than our standard apples of commerce. Even the Hibernal, of Russian origin and always regarded as the hardiest of all big apples, went down before the severe weather of last winter, while Saunders’s second cross apples as well as his first cross apples bloomed and are tearing fruit across the prairies. Thus was it demonstrated that hardiness is an inherited factor and, like Roman noses, bald heads and red hair in the human family, passes down through generation after generation in the apple family. Also it has demonstrated that the choice eating quality of the McIntosh, the Wealthy, the Spy and the other aristocrats of the apple family is a hereditary factor.

A Dream Come True

TT FELL to M. B. Davis, under the direction of Dr. Macoun, to take the third and perhaps the final step in the Saunders project. He applied the “third dose’’ of pollen from the large commercial apples to the blooms of the second cross apples in 1922-23. He used fifteen big apples as fathers, and in every case he used Trail, Rosilda, Martin,

^ apella and their sisters as mothers for the third generation. There are today 615 of these third cross apple trees growing at the Ottawa Experimental Farm, of which but ninety-one have yet reached fruiting age. The fruit on these ninety-one trees varies in size from one inch in diameter upward, but five of them have produced fruit from three

to 3 y inches in diameter or equal in size to the great commercial apples of the world. Saunders's dream of forty years ago has now come true—in part. Here are the full-sized apples of good eating quality of which he dreamed. But instead of being daughters of the Siberian crab which Saunders hoped for, they are great-granddaughters. Their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers are the same apples which were used as male parents throughout the whole breeding programme.

The test of these third cross apples are about 100 times larger than their Siberian great-grandmother, and at least 1,000 times more palatable and useful. Their hardiness is not yet known beyond what Ottawa winters can test, but Ottawa last winter had the lowest temperatures ever recorded at that point since the Experimental Farm was established. A large number of the third cross apples were uninjured while most of the standard apples of commerce and even some Russian varieties were severely damaged, indicating that the hardiness of the Siberian crab has passed on and manifested itself even in the thi d generation.

But the extreme hardiness of these few particular third cross apples at Ottawa is not final. Hardiness has been proved to be a hereditary factor. Since Saunders’s day the science of genetics or the study of heredity has developed so rapidly that wc have knowledge of which even the foremost scientists of twenty years ago knew little. The Saunders apple-breeding project has been a complete success and stands as the greatest triumph in apple-breeding history. Just which of the big three-inch third cross apples will prove equal to the severe prairie winters will not be known for a few years yet, but scientific knowledge places it beyond the shadow of doubt that some of them will prove to be as hardy as even the original Siberian crab and will withstand the fifty-five and even at times sixty-five below zero temperatures that the northern prairies have endured and may again experience.

While Saunders was thinking only of the settlers in the prairie provinces when he inaugurated his apple-breeding project, its economic value is going to be much wider. This past winter throughout many of the apple-growing districts of Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces was the most severe ever recorded, and the damage to orchards has in some places approached destruction. Fortunately the Saunders project is just being completed in time to provide apples equal to winter weather very much more severe than any that prevails in Eastern Canada. It will also open up apple growing as a possibility for large areas of Northern Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, and be equally valuable in the more severe parts of the Northwestern States of the Union.