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David Fairchild, chief of the plant hunters

David Fairchild brought seeds of many varieties of mango back to the U.S. The tropical fruit is celebrated with its own festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which was named in honor of the plant explorer.
David Fairchild brought seeds of many varieties of mango back to the U.S. The tropical fruit is celebrated with its own festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which was named in honor of the plant explorer.

In 1902, David Fairchild was traveling in Asia, looking for mangos that would thrive in the United States. The varieties grown in North America, he said, were inedible, like “juicy balls of fibers soaked with turpentine.” He bought big baskets of several varieties, but what he needed to ship home were the seeds, not the whole fruit — and he needed those seeds fast.

Fairchild rounded up a group of boys and pitched pennies to them as they ate the fruit on the dock and spit out the seeds, which he hurriedly packed in charcoal.

The story is recounted in Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters, by Amanda Harris (University Press of Florida, $24.95), published this spring. In it, Harris tells how the agency sent abroad “plant hunters,” adventurous scientists who poked into the world’s remote corners seeking fruits and vegetables that could be cultivated in the United States.

We have only one life to live and we want to spend it enriching our own country with the plants of the world

David Fairchild in a letter to one of his plant hunters

“They were very brave and very smart and they worked very hard,” said Harris, whose grandmother was the best friend of Marian Fairchild, David’s wife, and whose father was Marian Fairchild’s godson. “My father knew David Fairchild and used to go to his house … and would tell me stories about him.”

Intrigued by the tales of adventure, Harris set out to write a book about Fairchild, but in researching him, learned about other plant explorers whose stories were too interesting not to be included. She will talk about the book Sunday during Miami Book Fair International.

Fairchild had strong ties to Miami and eventually retired here. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables was named in his honor. Kampong, his Coconut Grove estate, can be toured by the public.

Today it might be hard to believe there was a time when Americans weren’t foodies, when our diets relied largely on a small number of blandly seasoned staples, and we had no interest in seeking out new tastes.

In the late 19th century though, Washington was worried. After the plague of locusts of the mid-1870s, officials with the U.S. Agriculture Department feared that an invasive insect, plant disease or drought could wipe out a substantial part of our food supply.

Fairchild joined the department’s new plant pathology section in 1889. He was 20, and had studied botany and horticulture at Kansas College. A few years later Fairchild quit to see more of the world, but would return and spend most of his career with the government. He created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, did plant-hunting himself and dispatched other scientists around the globe.

111,857 Varieties of plants and seeds that Fairchild and his plant hunters had introduced to the U.S. when he retired.

“The menu of the average American dinner includes the products of scarcely a dozen plants, and yet the number which could be grown for the table would reach into the hundreds,” Fairchild wrote.

After the turn of the century, the insular nature of the country began to ease. “America was really opening up to the world,” Harris said. “Americans were traveling and eating new food, and it exposed people to new flavors.”

The book “is as much an American story as a food story,” she said.

It’s a political story too. There were conflicting opinions in Washington about plant explorers traveling to remote parts of the world and shipping back seeds and cuttings from plants that some thought were unnecessary. Some feared that pests and disease would accompany plant materials and wipe out a key sector of U.S. agriculture. And Fairchild and his agency suffered a setback when some of its scientists started talking about applying the principles of plant breeding and hybridization to humans — eugenics.

International plant hunting changed forever after Congress, fearing infestations by fruit flies and other insects, in 1912 restricted imports of foreign plants.

Fairchild himself was controversial, frequently setting off on long plant-hunting trips and delegating his administrative duties to someone else. Often he went at the expense of a friend or sponsor, traveling in luxury while his underlings were limited by the agency’s chronically strapped budget.

Under Fairchild’s leadership, though, explorers introduced such success stories as the Meyer lemon, soybeans, Calimyrna figs, date palms, durum wheat, navel oranges, and many varieties of mangos and avocados to American farmers. He had a role in bringing the first cherry trees to Washington D.C.

By the time Fairchild retired to Miami in 1935, according to Harris’s book, his office had introduced 111,857 varieties of plants and seeds to the U.S. and changed American agriculture.

Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert

More on David Fairchild

Amanda Harris, author of “Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters,” will speak at noon Sunday during Miami Book Fair; Room 8301, Building 8, third floor.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables; 305-667-1651, www.fairchildgarden.org; open daily except Christmas. David Fairchild was one of a number of people who worked to establish this garden, and it was named in his honor. Later, he went on the garden’s first official collecting expedition; some of the plants at the garden were ones he brought back from that and other trips.

The Kampong, 4013 Douglas Rd. (SW 37th Ave.), Coconut Grove; 305-442-7169; http://ntbg.org/gardens/kampong.php; part of the National Tropical Botanic Garden. Guided tours offered seasonally, September to June two or three days a week. Must be booked in advance. Fairchild bought the property in 1916 and named it The Kampong, a Malay word for a village, and moved there in 1935 after he retired from the Department of Agriculture. He used the grounds as an “introduction garden” and for experiments on plants he collected, some of which still grow there.