Few realize that the birth of the modern American seed industry (and therefore, in a sense, of American agriculture as well) was the result of the dedication, hard work and passion of a relative handful of individuals.
David Landreth: The Original American Seedsman
David Landreth founded the earliest American seedhouse in 1784. He was the first in a long line of Landreths who operated the company for generations. The company has since been traded out of the family, but continues in operation to this day.
Landreth was born in 1752 in Northumberland, England, near the Scottish border. He emigrated first to Canada, in 1780, and founded a seed company in Montreal. A few Canadian winters convinced Landreth to seek greener pastures to the south, however, and in 1784 he relocated to Philadelphia, then the pre-eminent city in the newly-formed United States. There, he founded a new company, naming it simply "David Landreth," with its retail location on High Street.
David was joined by his brother, Cuthbert, in 1789, and the brothers established their production facility, The Landreth Nursery and Seed Garden, in "the Neck," a strip of fertile land between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, specializing in tree production. The company's moniker was prosaically updated to "David and Cuthbert Landreth" in 1790. Among its other enterprises, the company offered seeds available via mail order, a tremendous novelty at the time, some 50 years before the creation of the Postal Service inaugurated reliable mail service!
The single most outstanding Landreth introduction, without doubt, must be the tomato, the seed of which exotic fruit they made commercially available starting in 1820. But prior to that, in 1811, Landreth had introduced another cornerstone of American agriculture: the white-fleshed potato. (Previously all available potato varieties had contained yellow flesh.) And, in 1826, the company introduced Bloomsdale Longstanding Spinach. The variety set a new standard for the hitherto ephemeral vegetable. It is still the most beloved and most widely grown open-pollinated spinach to this day, two centuries later.
The Landreths' work was instrumental in popularizing a number of then-unfamiliar vegetables in the new republic, including eggplant, cauliflower and muskmelon.
The Landreths were interested in more than just vegetables, however, and did much important pioneering in ornamentals as well, introducing the Mexican Zinnia in 1798. (Early zinnias were not the flamboyant, saucer-sized varieties we know today. The flowers of these early varieties were small, similar to today's Persian Carpet strain. They were, nonetheless, a tremendous sensation at the time.)
Following the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Landreth worked with numerous newly-discovered varieties sent home by the explorers. Working in hothouses and propagating strange plants from seed, Landreth was instrumental in introducing a number of native plants into American horticulture, including the Osage Orange, which until recently was ubiquitous throughout the Midwest, where it was grown as a dual-purpose crop, providing windbreaks and some of the most durable fenceposts known.
The 1824 catalog of offerings by the Landreth brothers, Catalogue of Greenhouse Plants, Hardy Trees, Evergreen Shrubs, Etc., is an exhaustive compendium of fruit trees, ornamentals, "esculent vegetable seeds," trees and shrubs, and hothouse plants. The most cursory review of its contents belies the commonly-held belief that early American horticulture was painfully limited in scope. The Catalogue offers hundreds of varieties—scores of named fruit tree varieties, seeds or plants of palm trees, acacias, gardenias, and dozens of other types that comprise the glorious diversity commonly associated with more recent times. The company also offered the earliest collection of rhododendrons and camellias in the United States.
David Landreth was prominent in professional circles of his peers. In 1828, in collaboration with David Landreth II, he was one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and in 1832 he published the Floral Magazine, the first technical horticultural periodical published in the United States.
David Landreth's passion for innovation in horticulture, as well as the company he founded, endured long after his death in 1836. His successors were deeply involved in Commodore Perry's 1852 "opening of Japan," contributing thousands of pounds of seeds for trade with that country. They developed some of the earliest machines for mowing. Later, they built the first steam-powered tractor, a revolutionary development at the time. His legacy remains, in the form of myriad varieties of plants that he developed, popularized, or first made widely accessible.
Peter Henderson: Great American Seedsman
Peter Henderson was one of the foremost American seedsmen of his era. In his time, Henderson introduced some of the landmark vegetable varieties of his day; many have held their own to the present day.
Henderson, born near Edinburgh, Scotland in 1822, emigrated to America in 1843. He began market gardening in 1847, in New Jersey, working under another famous seedsman of Scottish origin, Robert Buist. He later wrote "I started business in Jersey City at the age of 23, with a capital of $500, which it had taken me three years to make as a working gardener. For the first five years I was in business, I can safely say that we worked, on an average, sixteen hours a day, winter and summer, with rarely a day for recreation." Henderson was thus a self-made man, of the type so admired in late 19th century America.
In 1871, he founded his own seed house, Peter Henderson and Company. The company focused on developing improved varieties especially for conditions in American gardens. He inaugurated a new era of seed trade merchandising by using five-color lithography in his catalogs, which tended to be very voluminous and detailed, dictating every word to his secretary while lying down after hours!
Henderson was a prolific writer; he published several books and wrote tens of thousands of letters, personally answering every letter he received! He wrote Gardening for Profit (1867), which is known as the very first American book instructing his readers in market gardening practices. The work sold about 150,000 copies. He also wrote Practical Floriculture (1868), Gardening for Pleasure (1875), The Handbook of Plants (1881) with C. L. Allen, and Garden and Farm Topics (1884) also with C. L. Allen, which sold over 200,000 copies! His books are still of tremendous horticultural as well as historical interest to modern readers.
Henderson was respected and admired in his own time—his contemporaries called him “the father of horticulture and ornamental gardening” in the United States. He died in 1890 in Jersey City, N.J. The company he founded remained influential in American horticulture for decades after his death, surviving and introducing superior new varieties until the mid-20th century.
Some famous Peter Henderson introductions, made during his lifetime that are still widely grown today are:
Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage (circa 1850)
Henderson's Bush Lima Bean (1889)
White Bermuda Onion (1888)
Early Snowball Cauliflower (1878)
Oscar H. Will: Pioneer Dakota Seedsman
"We are the pioneer nurserymen of the Northwest" — Catalog cover, 1911
One of the pioneer seedsmen of the Old West was Oscar H. Will. Not only did he emphasize breeding new varieties for the harsh conditions of North Dakota, but he was among the first to recognize the value of regionally adapted Native American varieties, both in their own right and as a starting point for modern breeders.
Born at Pompey, N.Y. in 1855, the future seedsman left school at the age of 13, and began working in the nursery industry at Fayetteville, N.Y. From there, Will emigrated to Dakota Territory in 1881, homesteading and signing on to work for Bismarck Greenhouse and Nurseries. By 1885, Will was running the company, aggressively expanding the business, enlarging the existing catalog and actively seeking mail-order customers. His business steadily increased over the years.
By 1896, Will was releasing varieties from his own breeding lines, starting with Early Dakota Sugar Corn. Will's breeding work, as well as his promotional efforts, centered around developing rugged varieties that could tolerate Dakota Territory's harsh environment of temperature extremes, short growing season, drought and wind. Some of the many introductions made during his lifetime include Pride of Dakota Flint Corn (1888), Gehu Yellow Flint (1889), Millet's Dakota Tomato (1913), Will's Sugar Watermelon (1888), and perhaps the most famous of all, Great Northern Bean, introduced in 1896, and still a standard today.
One thing that sets Will apart from other seedsmen of his time was his reliance on varieties developed by the Native Americans, who had been growing and perfecting crops in the inhospitable region for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Will payed homage to the contributions of Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa agriculture by touting the achievements of the Native farmers and by including Native images and motifs in the artwork of his catalogs, a tradition that his company carried on for many years after his death.
Will wrote in his 1914 catalog: "Few people realize that North Dakota has been an agricultural state for at least 200 years. For at least that long, Manadan Indians have grown these varieties of hardy corn and vegetables, carefully selecting their seed for both earliness and drought resistance, and exercising great care to keep their several varieties of corn separate. The earliest visitors tell of great plantations of corn and vegetables near all of their towns, carefully tended by the women, who were expert gardeners..."
Oscar H. Will died in 1917, at the age of 62. His son, George, continued the company along with his father's passion for Native American varieties. George, an anthropologist by training, collected hundreds of corn varieties and wrote several ethnobotanical works. The company operated under his descendants until the 1960s, making many noteworthy releases.