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The Fruits of America Part 2: The US Department of Agriculture's 'Agricultural Explorers'

'Garcinia mangostana' (the mangosteen), watercolour by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1909 – said to be agricultural explorer David Fairchild's favourite fruit. From USDA, Pomological Watercolor Collection

This is the follow-on to my blog The Fruits of America Part 1: The US Department of Agriculture's Pomological Watercolor Collection, where I looked at its beautiful, but not particularly well-known, collection of watercolours of fruit and nuts begun in the late 1880's an example being the one above from 1909. In that blog, I mentioned that the USDA also employed its own plant-collectors, referred to as Agricultural Explorers, and this is a brief look at some of the best known and the work they did.


But before I start, here's a brief introduction to American agriculture.

Before Europeans arrived in North America, different groups of Native Americans had already domesticated crops from Central and South America, while the early European settlers brought crops from other parts of the world with them. However, as agriculture in the US developed, and with an increasing population, the need for diverse and new forms of food crops were essential. Early on, it was often individual and agricultural societies that actively introduced plants – one of the best known individuals being Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the 3rd President of the United States, who collected plants and seeds during his travels abroad, as well as receiving numerous shipments sent by friends in various countries [see Notes].

Jefferson quote from Memoir, Correspondence and Miscellanies from the papers of T. Jefferson, ed.1829, and quoted in 'The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce & Obsession' by Adam Leith Gollner, 2008

However, the first official US government attempts at encouraging plant introduction were circulars sent out by the Treasury Department in the 1820's, requesting naval and consular officials in foreign countries to send back plants or seeds that might be useful to American agriculture. Later, this task was taken over by the Patent Office and, in 1839, the Commissioner of Patents initiated a programme to send introduced seeds to American farmers. In 1858, the Commissioner even hired Robert Fortune (1812-1880), Scottish botanist and plant-hunter, to collect tea seeds in China.

But it wasn’t until 1862, that Present Abraham Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture ('USDA'), one of its main purposes being “…to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants”. Bilateral exchanges of plants and seeds with foreign governments began in USDA's early days and, by the end of the 19th century, introductions included wheat, oats, cotton, jute, figs, flax, grapes, opium poppy, eucalyptus, sugar beets, grasses, citrus fruits, dates, persimmons and tea. And efforts to formalize plant introductions were finally realised with the establishment of USDA's Section of Seed and Plant Introduction in 1898.

'Employees of the US Department of Agriculture in 1867'. From ‘150 Years of Research at the United States Department of Agriculture: Plant Introduction and Breeding’, USDA publication, 2013

For more detailed (and fascinating) information on the early days of the US Department of Agriculture, including the 'US Propagation Garden' in Washington D.C., which was located just across the road from the Capitol building, see link in the Notes to the USDA's publication 150 Years of Research at the United States Department of Agriculture: Plant Introduction and Breeding.

USDA's 'Agricultural Explorers'

As a garden historian, I've always been a big fan of 'plant-hunters' and their often courageous exploits, but while the likes of Ernest "Chinese" Wilson was in China collecting new species of rhododendrons and other plants to grace our gardens, other plant-collectors across the globe – or Agricultural Explorers as the USDA referred to theirs, were undertaking just as hazardous trips for the sake of economic plants. Their stories are just as fascinating, and in this blog I'm looking at just 3 notable agricultural explorers (out of many): David Fairchild, Frank Meyer and Wilson Popenoe.

A young David Fairchild demonstrates a new crop spraying technique in 1889. Image published in the article 'America’s First “Food Spy” Traveled the World Hunting for Exotic Crops' by Anna Diamond, 'Smithsonian Magazine', January 2018

David Fairchild (1869-1954), was a renowned botanist credited with introducing more than 200,000 plants into modern American culture. At just 22, he created the Section of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction within the USDA, later achieving the title Agricultural Explorer in Charge. He worked at USDA for some 40 years, and is credited with introducing mangos, kale, avocados, hops, horseradish, nectarines, soybeans, pistachios and bamboo (amongst other plants) to American farmers.

A sketch of an avocado by Deborah Griscom Passmore 1905 in the 'Yearbook of the US Dept. of Agriculture', 1910. One of the many crops Fairchild introduced to American farmers. Image published in Anna Diamond's 2018 article in the 'Smithsonian Magazine'

Fairchild was especially interested in China. Already known for having a wealth of unexplored botanical riches, Chinese plants were expected to grow well in areas of the US with a similar climate. And, in the early 1900’s, Fairchild began his search for plant explorers who, as Theresa Culley writes in a 2007 article in Arnoldia [see References], “had the dedication and stamina to tolerate the physical discomforts and social isolation of travelling for months in distant lands”. Fairchild’s explorers were typically plant scientists and plant pathologists. And, in addition to travelling to far flung corners of the globe to find economically useful plants, they were also tasked with cultivating plant species in the US, undertaking administrative tasks in the department, and marketing the new plants to US farmers. To this end, the agricultural explorers’ expeditions were well-documented at the time in a 'series' called Uncle Sam’s Plant Hunters, which also helped them introduce new food plants to consumers [although, at the time of writing, I've been unable to find anything further regarding this series – which, for the time, I presume was written material].

Fairchild also wrote articles, bulletins, and other material for the USDA. One of which, written in 1913, was a pamphlet titled How to Send Living Plant Material to America, in which he describes how best to pack and ship seeds and plant material from around the world back to the US including by post, as well as Wardian Case as illustrated below. Fairchild later wrote The World Was My Garden in 1938, which detailed his life and numerous travels [available on-line – see Notes]

Plate V from Fairchild’s 'How to Send Living Plant Material to America', 1913, photographs depicting: Top: 'Wardian Case of living plants packed for a journey of several weeks’ duration, with roof or cover in place, ready for shipment'. Bottom: 'Wardian Case of Living Tropical Plants packed for a journey of several weeks, broken open to show construction'

Fairchild’s favourite fruit was said to be the mangosteen (unrelated to the mango incidentally), as pictured at the beginning of this blog, which he found in Java. Its small fruit is purple, with white flesh inside which is sweet and something like a lychee. Fairchild called it "the queen of fruits" but it never caught on, much to his regret – it being a hard crop to grow, with not much fruit inside for the effort. Today, however, some mangosteens are imported from Puerto Rico (where it was later introduced), and sold in US speciality food stores and gourmet restaurants as 'a delicacy dessert'.

Excerpt from 'Garcinia mangostana' (the mangosteen), watercolour by Deborah Griscom Passmore, 1909, which shows that it was collected by David Fairchild from the Botanical Gardens in Trinidad. From USDA, Pomological Watercolor Collection

Fairchild was also partly responsible for the importation into the US of Japanese cherry blossom trees which now flower beautifully every year in Washington D.C. While in Japan in 1902, Fairchild fell in love with the blossoms and although they don’t produce cherries, and are therefore useless to farmers, he thought it worthwhile bringing them into the country for their beauty alone. He first imported several dozen of the trees for his own property and, seeing how much people liked them, he helped negotiate with the Japanese for a larger shipment of trees which were planted out near the Washington Monument.

David Fairchild, photographed on an overseas trip c.1940

Over the years, Fairchild is said to have travelled to every continent in the world, except Antarctica. And, in 1925/26, he led a USDA expedition to the East Indies, during which his team "scoured local markets, botanical gardens, farms, roadsides, and even beaches to collect seeds and plant specimens". Fortunately for posterity, one team member filmed the trip, and it features footage of Fairchild and the expedition. Titled Agricultural Explorers in Ceylon, Sumatra and Java, this fascinating film is available to view on-line (see Notes for link).

In addition to this film, another, Naturalized Plant Immigrants, dating from 1929, gives an overview of the agricultural explorers' activities in introducing economically important plants from around the world. It shows agricultural explorers at work, plants being quarantined in the US, and brief histories of some of the introduced fruits, grasses and other crops [again, see Notes].

Such was Fairchild's importance that there are numerous articles about him available on the web, including Anna Diamond's article America’s First “Food Spy” Traveled the World Hunting for Exotic Crops published in the Smithsonian Magazine [available on-line – see References]. There are also books about him, one of the most recent being The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone, published in 2018.

The second of my agricultural explorers is Frank Nicholas Meyer (1875-1918). He was a Dutch-American who came to the US in 1901 with an interest in discovering unknown plants. Meyer was just the kind of plant-collector Fairchild was looking for. He had the dedication and stamina required to undertake arduous travels, and had, as Culley points out in her article, a “deep fascination with plants and saw nothing unusual about walking hundreds of miles on a botanical foray”. Fairchild hired him to travel to China to find plants that would thrive in the US, and he made his first trip there in 1905. Meyer then spent 3 years exploring China, making several more trips across Asia over the next 10 years in his search for useful and valuable plants. During this period he sent hundreds of shipments of cuttings and thousands of pounds of seeds back to the US.

David Fairchild and Frank Meyer. Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library

'Frank Nicholas Meyer in Chinese Turkestan', 1911. From Fairchild's book, 'The World Was My Garden', 1938.

Frank N. Meyer photographed c.1909. From Fairchild's book, 'The World Was My Garden', 1938

Among more than the 2,500 plants Meyer introduced to the US, one, the Meyer lemon, which he found near Beijing, was named in his honour. He is also credited with finding such plants as a seedless persimmon, oil-bearing soybeans, blight-resistant spinach (which, it's said, saved the American spinach industry), as well as a variety of plums, pears, peaches, grains and grasses. He was also the first Westerner to find Ginkgo biloba growing in the wild (although the Ginkgo had long been known to horticultural science). Most American Ginkgo specimens today are actually descendants of the seeds Meyer sent back to the US.

Photograph of the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) collected by Frank Meyer in China in 1908 and planted at the USDA Plant Introduction Garden in California in 1912. This pine was said to be one of Meyer’s favourite plants – and, left, the same tree in 2015. Courtesy Chico State University, Meriam Library Special Collections and University Archives

'Bulletin No. 106 - Seeds and Plants Imported' between December 1905 and July 1906

Each year, the USDA produced reports on “Seeds and Plants Imported” and that for December 1905 to July 1906, written by Fairchild, gives an idea of Meyer's exploits. Among the new introductions worthy of note were, Fairchild wrote: “the collections of our agricultural explorer Mr. Frank N. Meyer, who was sent to Northern China in the summer of 1905 and who has been exploring the remarkable plant regions of the mountains north and west of Peking". This particular area was an important one to explore, as it's winters were just as severe as those in the "Middle States" of the US. Fairchild concluding that “Mr Meyer’s explorations have been made into different places, difficult and sometimes dangerous of access, and at no little sacrifice of personal comfort and risk to his health and safety”.

As plant collecting could be a somewhat hazardous activity, agricultural explorers were given an Agricultural Explorer Certificate which identified them as working for the USDA. The Certificate below, dating from 1905, identifies Meyer, who was visiting Manchuria and other parts of China for “the purpose of Aiding in Agricultural Development, especially along the line of Pomology”. It’s likely that Meyer carried this certificate with him, and used it to introduce himself and his research. [I've read that, initially, USDA's agricultural explorers were called Special Agents, but this was hastily changed once it was realised this could be taken to mean they were spies for the US government!]

Agricultural Explorer Certificate for Mr Frank N Meyer, 1905. Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library

Unfortunately, and despite the Certificate, Meyer didn’t live to see the success of the Meyer lemon as, in true plant-hunting fashion, he died in mysterious circumstances. During an expedition to Shanghai in 1918 while travelling on a riverboat on the Yangtze River, he simply disappeared overboard one night. His body was later found in the river, but the circumstances were never resolved.

The last of my 3 agricultural explorers is Frederick Wilson Popenoe (1892-1975). Wilson Popenoe, as he preferred to be called, joined the USDA in 1914 aged 22. Between 1916 and 1924, he explored Latin America searching for new strains of avocados, reporting his adventures to the National Geographic Society. For example, one article published in their magazine, the National Geographic, titled 'Round About Bogota', is described as “an interesting article on the search for new fruits and plants among the mountain forests of Colombia’s capital”. Popenoe also wrote a number of Bulletins for the USDA one, titled The Avocado in Guatemala, published in April 1919 included the plate shown below.

'Wilson Popenoe – Exploring Guatemala for Desirable New Avocados'. From the California Avocado Association's 1917 Annual Report'. This poor quality image is one of the few I have found of Popenoe as a young agricultural explorer

Popenoe's experiences gave him so much first-hand and previously unknown information that in 1920 he published a book, Manual of Tropical and Sub-Tropical Fruits, which quickly became the standard reference on the subject [available on-line – see Notes]. In his book, Popenoe tells us that as an agricultural explorer he travelled to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, India, Arabia, North Africa, Mexico, Guatemala, the West Indies and Brazil. While his field work alternated with practical experience of tropical and sub-tropical fruit-growing in California and Florida.

In 2017, the American Society for Horticultural Science’s Hall of Fame described Popenoe as a famous horticulturist, botanist and agricultural explorer. He is also described as one of the most influential figures during the 20th century in Central American agriculture, plant science and education as, after his plant-collecting days, he established a botanical garden in Honduras and, later, an agricultural school.

Plate I. 'An Avocado Tree in a Coffee Plantation at Antigua'. Popenoe describes how avocado trees, growing from seeds dropped by workman in coffee plantations, are allowed to grow to provide shade for the delicate coffee bushes. Photographed in May 1917

Frederick Wilson Popenoe with avocados, c.1968 by an unknown photographer. Courtesy Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation Archives, portrait no.8 – and, right, Plate XXIV, 'the mangosteen' from Popenoe’s 'Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits', 1920


The USDA's Section of Seed and Plant Introduction has, over the years, been responsible for the introduction into the US of some of their most well-known and economically significant plant crops. And its activities are largely responsible for the industrialisation of US agriculture. Since its beginnings in 1898, under the direction of Fairchild, there has continued to be an office within the USDA with this responsibility, although the name has changed periodically.

Today, it’s called the National Germplasm Resources Laboratory – it’s mission being “to collect, maintain, document, and share plant material related to food and agriculture”. As it states, it’s a mission that, today, is even more critical than ever in helping to “meet the global challenges of safe and secure production of food, feed, fiber, ornamental, industrial, and medicinal plants”.

And to finish...

As one modern US writer acknowledges, a hundred years ago the American diet was rather a plain one “heavy on meat, potatoes, and cheeses, and with a very limited palette of fruits and vegetables”. But the USDA’s agricultural explorers would change all that, trekking across the world to find new crops and ornamental plants, and introducing thousands of exotic plants, fruits, and crop varieties which US farmers and citizens rely on today.

To aid with the establishment of the plants brought back to the US, Fairchild established a ‘plant introduction garden’ in Miami in 1898. His idea was that this garden would act as a field station in which to plant, test, and develop the new plant material, adapting them for different regions of the US. By 1914, the Miami garden of 6 acres was much too small and so overcrowded that additional sites were obtained in different parts of Florida, greatly increasing the acreage available. These gardens were an integral part of the work of the USDA but are, as they say, another story, and perhaps the subject of a future blog...

In the meantime, there's plenty to find on the web about the USDA, Fairchild, Meyer and Popenoe, and other agricultural explorers, and I've listed some links below if you want to read more.

Plate G, 'Fruiting Branch of one of the Large-Fruited varieties of the Chinese Jujube growing at the Chico Plant Introduction Field Station', from the 1916 Yearbook of the US Department of Agriculture


For further information on Thomas Jefferson and his plants, see the Monticello website. Link here Monticello's Mystery Plants | Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

The USDA's 2013 publication,150 Years of Research at the United States Department of Agriculture: Plant Introduction and Breeding. Link here: 150YearsofResearchatUSDA.pdf

David Fairchild’s 1938 book, The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer. Link here: David Fairchild (1938) The World was my Garden : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Silent films produced by the US Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry. Both run for about 24 minutes:

Wilson Popenoe's 1920 book, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits-excluding the Banana, Coconut, Pineapple, Citrus Fruits, Olive, and Fig. Link here:


The Rise and Fall of the Ornamental Callery Pear Tree by Theresa M. Culley, Arnoldia, The Magazine of the Arnold Arboretum, Vol.74, No.3, 2017

America’s First “Food Spy” Traveled the World Hunting for Exotic Crops by Anna Diamond, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018

Scientist of the Day: Frank Nicholas Meyer by Dr William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library, University of Missouri, 2018

Further reading:

For more information on the Wardian case see my blog The Wardian Case - preventing damage to plants by "monkeys and parakeets"

A book about David Fairchild, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, by Daniel Stone was published in 2018

189 views2 comments


Mar 30, 2023

I so enjoy reading your blogs - I learn so much and they’re always so interesting 🤗


Mar 30, 2023

I hadn't heard of any of these three. Thank you, Paula!

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