Crop breeding

Frank Meyer – an early plant explorer

Food is one of life’s ultimate delights. Surprisingly, many of the foods we enjoy in the United States today are not native to North America. Crop scientists refer to them as “plant introductions.” This is simply the step of collecting a plant and growing it in a new environment. Fruits like apricots and pears grow in the United States now, but they are not native. So, how did these yummy foods start to be grown here?

Gold colored medal with Frank N Meyer Agricultural Explorer engraving

Frank Meyer Medal awarded each year by the Crop Science Society of America for distinctive service to the National Plant Germplasm System, designed by staff artist Pat Scullion.

Back in the 1880s, a little known branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a concerted effort to collect plant introductions. One early adventurer, Frank Meyer, was willing to travel under harsh conditions, often in solitude, with very little but his scientific tools. In fact, the delicious Meyer lemon is named after this courageous explorer!

Meyer had no cell phone on his trips, no GPS. There was no car to transport him, or even an airplane. He had to use his feet and a donkey cart. An equipment list for an international trip to collect plants, scions (buds and shoots), and seeds in Central Asia and China circa 1905: sphagnum moss, copper labels, oiled paper, twine, seed bags, burlap, and that donkey and cart.

Meyer was a Dutch immigrant to the United States. He had extensive botanic and nursery experience, ideal for a plant explorer. He studied with the famous plant geneticist Hugo de Vries in Amsterdam. Another helpful attribute was Meyer’s great physical stamina – and his natural wanderlust didn’t hurt. These were demonstrated by extensive walks across many countries in Europe prior to his 1901 U.S. arrival.

Antique photo of large wild apple tree in wintertime with main in long coat and hat

A large specimen of wild apple that may have great value hybridizing material – Thian Shan, Chinese Turkestan, 1911, from the Frank Meyer Collection at the Arnold Arboretum.

For thirteen years, Meyer traveled through countries in Asia and Europe. During his four plant explorations, he collected and introduced over 2,500 plants. These included hundreds of new species of crops, crop wild relatives plants that impact U.S. agriculture to this day. He also collected trees and ornamental plants that assist with horticultural science.

Meyer endured severe hardships during his scientific expeditions. These included environmental factors like bitter cold, and driving rain. But this was also at the time just after World War 1, with Meyer being often the only foreigner in these lonely locales. The social unrest, and labor disputes added to his job hazards. He is known to have traveled throughout isolated areas of China, Korea, Crimea, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Chinese Turkestan.

But what a rich legacy this person has left us! That juicy and delicious “Meyer” lemon is a dwarf Citrus hybrid that he discovered on his first expedition. This obscure lemon wasn’t used in the US until the late 1990s, when it was “rediscovered” by chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. It was then featured on National Public Radio in 2009. Meyer lemons’ final boost came from Martha Stewart on her TV cooking show.

four people standing in front of a persimmon tree with orange fruit

This persimmon tree originated from materials collected by Frank Meyer in China. This tree now grows in Chico, CA. Pictured are USDA plant explorer Karen Williams, USDA curators John Preece and Jenny Smith, and plant explorer Ned Garvey (retired USDA). Photo: Courtesy of Karen Williams.

Another notable fruit we enjoy in the United States today are large persimmons with few seed. Meyer was the first to introduce this species Diospyros kaki to US agriculture. Notable wild crop wild relatives of apple (Malus sp.) were collected in Chinese Turkestan.

Meyer’s plant introduction heritage lives on in many plant improvement programs to this day.  His introductions were immediately put to use by US plant scientists and breeders. Examples include multidisease-resistant spinach, winter-hardy and drought resistant wheats, barleys, sorghums, alfalfas, clovers. The first oil-bearing soybeans in the US all have genetic roots in Meyer’s plant introductions

Finding-Wild-RelativeF400Meyer died mysteriously on his fourth expedition and bequeathed his holdings to his colleagues at the USDA. In 1920, David Fairchild, his supervisor and colleagues used his legacy to establish the Frank N. Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources to honor his service to US agriculture. The award is given annually to outstanding contributors to conservation of plant diversity for humanity’s future, most recently to USDA’s Peter Bretting.

Meyer’s expeditions were:

1905-08: northern China, Korea and Siberia

1909-1912: Crimea, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Chinese Turkestan

1913-1915: Shanxi and Henan Provinces, Kansu and the Tibetan borderlands, Lanzhou, China

1916-1918: Ichang and Jingmen, China

The Meyer legacy continues beyond his plant introductions. Frank Meyer contributed extensively to botany around the world with herbarium samples collected and sent to herbaria while on his expeditions. Further, his equally extensive photographed expeditions are archived and available online with interesting insights into the agricultural life in Central Asia and China in the early part of the 20th century.

Provided by Clarice Coyne, USDA-ARS, Pullman, Washington

Read about more crop wild relatives in these blogs!

Conserving crop wild cousins

Yams, a main staple in Africa, Asia

The cranberry: a very American berry

Call of the wild sunflower

And, be sure to visit our main Crop Wild Relative Week page for more information!

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

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