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March 22, 2005

California Fruits, by Edward Wickson

Yesterday my copy of The California Fruits and How to Grow Them, by Edward J. Wickson, finally arrived. I've seen this book cited many times over the years, but yesterday was actually the first time I had the opportunity to read it. I didn't especially set out to buy a copy, but the other night I was entertaining myself by plugging the names of old books into ABE Books' search field and came across a copy for $7, which was just too good to let go.

The book, originally published in 1889, remained the definitive text on California agriculture for many years, through repeated printings and editions (mine is the sixth edition, 1914), and is still widely cited even to this day. It presents a comprehensive picture: from the wild fruits, to colonial introductions, to cultural methods and the various species and cultivars currently under cultivation. Wickson manages to hit just about every fruit species imaginable, including a few I have never seen recieve more than a sentence in any other text. If one were a farmer getting started in California at the turn of the century, this book would have been all you needed. As a reference book for historical studies of fruit culture in that era, it is in a class with only a very few others, such as its East Coast equivalent, Ulysses Hedrick's Fruits of New York, a much larger work focused more specifically on varieties.

Wickson himself was a major player in the development of West Coast horticulture, though one much forgotten these days. Professor of Horticulture at the University of California, head of state agricultural experiment station, and later Dean of the College of Agriculture at U.C. Berkeley, Wickson was a prolific researcher and writer who laid the foundations for what has become perhaps the most productive and varied horticultural region in the world. In addition to California Fruits, Wickson also wrote the companion volume California Vegetables, several books on ornamentals, and two volumes of questions and answers about California agriculture, the first of which is available online from Project Gutenberg if you're interested.

Wickson was also a friend to many of the other prominent California horticulturists of his day, and counted among his friends both of California's foremost fruit breeders of the age, Albert Etter and Luther Burbank. Burbank, who I have mentioned previously, was the better known of the two, and remains so to this day, but Etter was known by some as "the Luther Burbank of the North Coast", and many similarities exist between the two. Both were purely self-taught and worked with a wide range of fruits. Burbank made his biggest impact with plums, while Etter is best known for his apples and strawberries (both men are worthy topics of future posts, it occurs to me). In fact, both named cultivars after their friend Wickson: Burbank the 'Wickson' Japanese plum, still occasionally grown, and Etter the 'Wickson' apple, a small, crab-like (but very sweet) apple introduced in 1944 after Wickson's death.

Wickson and Burbank eventually had a falling out of sorts. Wickson had been asked in 1910 to write the comprehensive record of Burbank's work, what would later become the monstrous twelve volume Luther Burbank, His Methods and Discoveries, their Practical Application. Burbank did not apparently place great priority on the project, and Wickson became frustrated trying to get Burbank to focus on it. By 1913 Wickson had quit. It was apparently not an easy job, because by its publication a year later, Methods and Discoveries had gone through a total of six writers. Wickson was not credited on it, and it appears by comparison of his partial draft to the completed version that there was a major shift from an academic work to something aimed at a broader audience. (If you've got $1,750 to burn, you can actually buy Wickson's draft at Barry Cassidy Rare Booksellers [scroll down] and make the comparisons yourself).

For those interested in the history of horticulture, or simply in building a horticultural library well-stocked with "the classics", California Fruits would be an important and welcome addition, likely much more affordable than other such books (and the lack of color plates means it's less likely to be taken apart). The book contains information still valuable to breeders seeking out information on pedigrees and possible new parents, and to home owners and hobbyists, for whom the less technology-dependent solutions of a century ago may be more readily applicable than today's (just lay off the lead arsenate!).

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10 Comments:

At 3/28/2005 08:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting, though, to see how agriculture changed one aspect of the state: the San Francisco Bay. There's a neat exhibit in the Bay Area, at the US Army Corps of Engineer's Bay Model. The levee system, in particular, seems to have made and is still making a big change in the salt water and fresh water interface.

 
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Well, I don't really suppose this is likely to have effect.

 
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