Each spring, thousands of tourists travel to our nation’s capital to see the Tidal Basin swathed in clouds of cherry blossom pink. Peak bloom this year is predicted to be March 17-20 but festivities will continue for the following four weeks.
The first flowering cherry trees were planted more than 100 years ago when a Department of Agriculture employee ordered 125 of them from a Japanese plant nursery, because his new wife liked them. This man, David Fairchild was a shy country boy from Kansas, but he became one of the most adventuresome botanists of all time.
His story is told in The Food Explorer (Dutton, 2018), a new book by Daniel Stone that reads like a travelogue, a novel, and a gripping “National Geographic” article. This is unsurprising because Stone is a writer for the magazine, and a great fan of tropical fruit.
Born in 1869, Fairchild traveled the world to bring us thousands of different edible plants. Without him, we’d still be eating porridge, cabbage and potatoes daily, with perhaps some turnips for variety.
Fairchild began as a lowly agricultural researcher, but fate gave him a chance to travel the world in the Gilded Age. Accompanying a globetrotting philanthropist by train, steamship and donkey, escaping disease, parasites and cannibals, Fairchild brought us navel oranges, lemons, mangoes, guavas, and those darlings of the foodie crowd, kale and quinoa.
What’s football without guacamole? Only 100 years ago avocados were unknown in North America. Fairchild found them growing in Central and South America, and gave them to farmers looking for profitable crops. Today, thanks to promotions by the California Avocado Commission, guacamole is a must-have for Superbowl Sunday, when football fans eat more than 100 million pounds of the tasty green appetizer while watching the game.
Fairchild’s fascinating story abounds with more colorful tidbits such as these:
- In 1876 at The World’s Fair in Philadelphia, strange fruits from the Malay Islands called bananas were sold for a dime, wrapped in tinfoil (aluminum foil hadn’t been invented yet) to hide their phallic shape and spare the crowd’s Victorian sensibilities.
- Our early presidents George Washington (No. 1) and Thomas Jefferson (No. 3) were also farmers who found new ways to increase productivity of crops. Washington was especially fond of experiments involving manure.
- David Fairchild married the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell. They retired to Florida where the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables south of Miami, a very upscale and posh repository of beautiful and exotic plants is named for him.
- Kale, which Fairchild found growing widely in Austria-Hungary, has more iron than beef and more calcium and vitamins than almost any other edible plant.
- Before Fairchild brought back a better hop from Bavaria, America’s beers were harsh and bitter.
- Fairchild’s pocketful of cuttings from seedless grape vines in Italy became the basis of California’s grape, raisin and wine industries.
- And about those avocados: They were once a favorite food of elephant-like creatures called gomphotheres that excreted the pits wherever they roamed, resulting in more avocado trees. Fortunately, by the time gomphotheres became extinct, the Aztecs had invented guacamole and took over planting the pits.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Stone is a writer on environmental science, agriculture, and botany in Washington D.C. He writes for National Geographic and is a former White House correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He teaches environmental policy at Johns Hopkins University. After growing up in Los Angeles, he spent his youth in Davis, California, where he dirtied his fingernails in fields of peaches and strawberries. He worked for a pluot and stone fruit farmer before moving to Washington, D.C.