Directions for bringing over seeds and plants, from the East Indies and other distant countries, in a state of vegetation
John Ellis (1710–1776) promoted the growth of Chinese plants and trees in the American colonies in hopes that the climates would prove similar. In 1760, Daniel Solander (1733–1782), a student of Carl Linnaeus and a friend of Ellis, sent two tea seeds to Linnaeus. He reported that, although Ellis had just received fifty tea seeds wrapped in wax from northern China, Solander was only able to send Linnaeus two because the rest were being sent on to the American colonies. These seeds were intended to establish tea plantations in the New World. This hope, however, was not to be.
Ellis’s book is largely an instruction manual for “Captains of Ships, Sea Surgeons, and other curious Persons, who collect Seeds and Plants in distant Countries” and attempt to preserved them on ships. The individuals bringing back plants were rarely gardeners, and most of what they brought died en route or failed to germinate. Ellis also warned against traders selling seeds that were many years old and no longer viable. He gives examples of how to examine viable seeds with a magnifying glass. It was key to look for “whether their internal part . . . appears plump, white, and moist” rather than “shriveled, inclining to brown or black.”
Ellis proposed several methods of transporting seeds. The first was to cover seeds entirely with beeswax, so the seeds were embedded in a large block of solid wax for transport, a technique he demonstrated to the Royal Society using acorns that had vegetated after a year enclosed in wax. The second method of preserving viable seeds was to wrap each one in paper and pack them into a tin canister with a tightly sealed cover. In addition, Ellis reports a third method of transporting seed, one
“communicated to me some years ago by the celebrated Professor Linnaeus, of Upsal, in Sweden. He advises, that each sort of seed should be put up in separate papers, with fine sand among them, to absorb any moisture (dried, loamy, or soapy earth may be tried): these papers, he says, should be packed close in cylindrical glass, or earthen vessels . . . these vessels, with the seeds in them, should be put into other vessels, which should be so large, that the inner vessel may be covered on all sides, for the space of two inches, with [a] mixture of salts . . . to be placed about the inner vessel, rather moist than dry. This he calls a refrigeratory; and says it will keep the seeds cool, and hinder putrefaction.”
Ellis wished to experiment with this method for live plants.
For particularly long journeys from the East Indies, Ellis suggested the possibility of sowing the seeds in cases or tubs of earth as the ship reached St. Helena. However, he thought that the newly sprouted plants should not have much water until they passed the Tropic of Cancer, or they would “spire up very weak, from the great heat.” He cautioned against sowing seeds immediately after leaving China, since they were liable to be damaged in rough weather going around the Cape of Good Hope. It was also crucially important that rats not be able to devour the young plants so Ellis proposed a series of boxes and casks for which he provides an illustration at the beginning of his book. A wire covering would keep out rats and a lid with hinges could be shut during bad weather. Plants often succumbed to the salty environment of ships so Ellis suggested a layer of moss to keep the salt in the atmosphere from sinking into the soil. The moss could be rinsed in fresh water and replaced. Ideally, these transportation devices would also be used to ship new plants and trees of economic value to the American colonies.
Ellis devised another set of transportation boxes for moving small living trees and plants from the New World to England. The roots of each plant were bound up with moss and earth. Then they were packed tightly with more earth and moss into boxes roughly three feet long and two feet deep. Sometimes these boxes were nailed closed for the journey and air vents only were left open. For certain plants such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cacao, magnolias, and avocados, Ellis recommended dividing a wooden box into squares and filling them with earth and moss. The seeds were planted directly into these squares and the box was shipped with the cover nailed shut. He claimed that these seeds germinated at a higher rate than those sent in papers.
One of the main causes of mortality among seeds shipped from abroad was weevils or other insects. Ellis recommended the use of “camphire,” which, as he notes, had proved useful in preventing tiny insects from destroying large insect collections of butterflies, moths, and beetles. He also recommended the use of sulphur, tobacco, and sand to deter insects. Finally, he suggested painting corrosive sublimate mercury mixed in water and sal-ammoniac onto the boxes to deter large, persistent insects such as cockroaches.
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