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Thomas Fairchild: the man who created the first hybrid plant — and changed science


Thomas Fairchild: the man who created the first hybrid plant — and changed science

The horticulturist advanced our understanding of plant genetics and helped pave the way for the theory of evolution

Portrait of Thomas Fairchild © Oxford University Herbaria, Department of Plant Sciences

Last year marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the best-known and highly regarded figures in horticultural history. Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s achievements were celebrated throughout the UK and further afield for the lasting impression he made on the landscape of the British Isles and the advancement of the art and practice of landscape gardening.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of a man who is unlikely to be lauded to the same degree. Yet through the possession of an inquisitive mind and a knack for experimentation, Thomas Fairchild made a significant contribution to horticulture and to the progression of modern science. The work he carried out not only advanced our understanding of plant genetics, but gathered part of the evidence that paved the way for the theory of evolution.

Aside from a general consensus of a date of birth in 1667, the year after the Great Fire of London, little is known of Fairchild’s early years. He may have been born in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, in what is now the area around the Barbican. At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a clothmaker in the City, but after seven years evidently decided an indoor life was not for him.

Instead, in 1690 Fairchild headed to Hoxton in north-east London. At that time Hoxton was a centre for market gardening, with little more than farm fields between the nurseries. The last residential dwellings petered out around the medieval church of St Leonard, Shoreditch. In Hoxton, Fairchild gained employment as a nurseryman, and by the end of the century had done well enough to be able to purchase the business and run it as his own. By the early 1700s his operation, known as the City Gardens, was famous across London for its rare plants. Fairchild planted one of the first banana trees in the country, and developed a vineyard with more than 50 varieties of grape.

The City Gardens were not just an impressive commercial venture. In his Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature (1721), Richard Bradley, fellow of the Royal Society, mentions “that curious garden of Mr Thomas Fairchild at Hoxton, where I find the greatest collection of fruits that I have yet seen”. Fairchild had built up a network of botanists and plant collectors through which he was able to obtain plants from around the world. “No one in Europe excels him in the choice of curiosities, such as a universal correspondence can procure,” added Bradley.

Two dried specimens of Fairchild’s Mule at Oxford university © Oxford University Herbaria

When Fairchild arrived at Hoxton, the existence of sexual organs and reproduction in plants was only beginning to be guessed at and, given the still widespread belief in creationism, was highly contentious. When the University of Oxford Botanic Garden was established in 1621, its mission was to “promote learning and the glory of God”. Yet as scientific advances began to reveal the probability that plants were capable of reproduction and mutation without the hand of God, reconciling the two became an increasing dilemma for the naturalists and botanists of the day, many of whom were men of the cloth.

In his 1875 History of Botany, Julius von Sachs credits Rudolf Jakob Camerarius (1665-1721), of the botanical gardens at Tubingen, Germany, with the discovery of sex in plants. Sachs makes only a passing reference to Fairchild as “a gardener in London”, and attributes the first systematic study of plant hybrids in 1761 to Joseph Gottlieb Koelreuter (1733-1806). But in 1717 Fairchild created the first ever hybrid plant. He successfully crossbred a carnation pink (Dianthus caryophyllus) with a Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), and the resulting plant, described as Dianthus caryophyllus barbatus, became known as Fairchild’s Mule.

Pink carnation © Clive Nichols/Getty Images

In Bradley’s essay “Of the Generation of Plants”, he describes Fairchild’s experimentation: “A plant neither Sweet William nor carnation, but resembling both equally, which was raised from the seed of a carnation that had been impregnated by the Farina (pollen) of the Sweet William.” Through his hybridisation work, Fairchild in effect created first-generation sterile Dianthus hybrids (which today would be referred to as F1 hybrids). The scientific breakthrough was, in retrospect, huge, but also predicted the modern era of horticulture and agriculture, dominated by plant hybridisation for either ornamental purposes or productivity.

Despite Sachs’ cursory acknowledgment, Fairchild was highly thought of in his time. He corresponded with Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), the Swedish botanist who established the modern system of binomial nomenclature for living organisms. In 1722 he published a small book with a very long title: The City Gardener. Containing the most experienced Method of Cultivating and Ordering such Ever-greens, Fruit-Trees, flowering Shrubs, Flowers, Exotic Plants, &c. as will be Ornamental and thrive best in the London Gardens. It is still a worthwhile read.

St Leonard’s church in Shoreditch, 1811 © Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Fairchild carried on experimenting, with a 1724 paper presented to the Royal Society on “Some new Experiments relating to the different and sometimes contrary Motion of the Sap in Plants and Trees”. In 1725 he joined a newly established society of London gardeners, nurserymen and botanists. The society was an information exchange, and the members conferred the names and descriptions of the plants they shared among one another to a register. This was eventually published as A Catalogue of Trees and Shrubs, Plants and Flowers, both Exotic and Domestic which are propagated for Sale in the Gardens near London. Fairchild’s name is the first on the list of signatories, and the book is stylistically close in enough in tone to The City Gardener to assume he must have had a significant role in its production.

Despite Fairchild’s substantial achievements at the City Gardens, his discoveries seem to have challenged his faith. On his death in 1729, he bequeathed a sum to the churchwardens of St Leonard’s to endow an annual sermon, held on Whit Tuesday, on the subject of the “Wonderful Works of God in the Creation”, or on the “Certainty of the Resurrection of the Dead, proved by the certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of the Creation”. They continue to this day, as the “Vegetable Sermons”.

Illustration in a first edition of Fairchild’s ‘The City Gardener’, 1722 © Christie’s
Columbia Road Flower Market in London © Roy James Shakespeare/Getty Images

Unlike Capability Brown, Fairchild was not an arch publicist. Perhaps that is why his name is unfamiliar today. His humility was carried through to the grave; he instructed that he should be laid to rest “in some corner of the furthest church yard belonging to the parish of St Leonard’s Shoreditch, where poore people are usually buried”.

Two dried specimens of Fairchild’s Mule still exist, in the herbaria of Oxford university and in London’s Natural History Museum. There is also memorial to Fairchild, an engraved stone slab, now almost illegible, in a depressing scrap of open ground along the Hackney Road. It is a short walk from Columbia Road Flower Market, where the stallholders hawk the colourful successors to Fairchild’s Mule by the bucketful. Which is an altogether more satisfactory memorial than a worn stone slab off a dusty city street.

Sweet William © Paul Tomlins/Getty Images

Matthew Wilson is a garden and landscape designer and horticultural consultant

Photographs: Oxford University Herbaria, Department of Plant Sciences; Clive Nichols; Getty Images; Guildhall Library & Art Gallery; Heritage Images; Christie’s; Paul Tomlins; Roy James Shakespeare

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