A man named David Fairchild

The Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami.

Have you ever wondered, as you wander through the aisles in the produce section at your supermarket, where all those exotic fruits and vegetables come from? Of course, the usual answers will be Mexico or Chile, even Australia. Those are good answers, but I want to go a step further. Lets go back about 125 years, or more, ago.

Many plants, important plants, were native here. We know that corn, pinto beans and potatoes grew everywhere. Concord grapes, cranberries and blueberries were common, as were plums, cherries, peanuts and black walnuts.

The same goes for flowers, too. Most of those we have now immigrated from faraway places hundreds of years ago. Looking back 150 or more years ago, tulips and hyacinths were still in Turkey and Holland. Americans living then had not, for the most part, even heard about birds of paradise, anthurium or those orchids from South America, India and China. By then, I do believe that someone had brought over camellias and bamboo from China.

Here is a quote from those long ago days: “Until the plant explorers, such as Fairchild arrived on the scene, Americans ate to survive and to sustain. Then they ate to enjoy.”

Throughout the hundreds of years after Columbus proved that the world was not flat, botanists and scientists traveled the world bringing back plants that might have looked scary, but were delicious. From the mid-1700s, Capt. Cook roamed the seas around the North Atlantic and then mostly the South Pacific, and brought back to his native England many fruits and flowers never seen there before.

Certainly, we all know about the works of Charles Darwin. Some of us have read “The Voyage of the Beagle” and “The Origin of Species.” They are important beyond belief, but even more so, the drawings and dried specimens and even live plants that he returned with were priceless.

Another of my heroes, a man seldom remembered, was a British physician, Dr. Charles Ward. He was a plant collector, primarily looking for orchids. But he had a problem: Most specimens died before reaching England on those long voyages, often lasting more than a year. He developed a small, portable glass house that worked wonders in helping him keep the plants alive for months on end. Today, Wardian cases are collector’s treasures.

Let’s also look at the accomplishments of David Fairchild. They are many. He wrote books about each of his explorations, detailed books, books about his adventures in South America, Africa, Far East and Australia. One of the most famous of all public gardens in North America is the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. This 83-acre garden is really worth a visit. But mostly, he introduced the people of the United States to literally hundreds of fruits, vegetables and nuts that we enjoy today. While doing that, he found varieties better than those we were growing, and brought those to us, too. To accomplish all that he did, Fairchild traveled the world for more than half of his lifetime.

Yes, I am sure that by now, with our shrinking world of airplanes, fast boats, computers and radios, we would have most of them. But David Fairchild brought them to us from the earliest years of the 20th century until his death in 1954.

Many of us might not have been enjoying papayas, nectarines, watermelons and avocados in our youth in the 1950s. He found the pomegranate and pineapple at opposite ends of the African continent. Seedless grapes came from Padua in Italy, and kale from Croatia. Where would all these little brew shops, and the big ones, too, be if he had not brought back hops from Bavaria? Did you know that the peach and the Meyer lemon were found in China, and the mango in Vietnam?

Fairchild was not alone in his quest. There were many more explorers enduring hardship and danger, trying to put something new on the table. And dangerous it was.

It is exciting to visit some of the places and see what is there. I remember some years ago, hiking through the Amazon rain forest and coming upon a meadow that was yellow with fallen star fruits. The cattle were eating them. And back home I was paying $3.50 each!

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