Research at the Archives: Finding Grasses for the South

As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History, I’ve spent months in the Smithsonian Institution Archives researching a book tentatively titled, Not Naturally a Grass Country: Environment, Plant Genetics, and the Quest for Agricultural Modernization in the Humid World. It’s largely a story about global attempts to replace one form of agriculture—the extensive open range husbandry of hot climates—with another—the intensive mixed husbandry of cool climates. Details of agricultural systems can get rarified, so let’s just say that the effort depended on finding cultivable grasses that would grow year-round in hot places. And, that mixed husbandry can be summed up thusly: Cows eat grass. Cows poop grass. Poop makes good fertilizer for other crops. And cows are also good to eat. Portrait of George Vasey (1822-1893), Date unknown, by Unknown, Botanical Gazette, Vol. 18, No. 5. ( I came to this project after running across several agricultural reformers who, after the Civil War, claimed that farmers in the American South couldn’t grow pasture grass even if they wanted to—the climate was simply too harsh. Those people were crazy, I initially thought. Lush green grasses are everywhere in the South today. Pastures, meadows, roadsides, parks, golf courses, sports fields, and residential lawns, harbor mats of sod lush enough to make an English husbandman weep. If southern farmers had wanted to grow grasses, they could’ve; they were just too devoted to plantation agriculture and open range grazing. Or so I thought. As it turns out, known forage grasses at the time were adapted to cool climates and were difficult to grow in the South. But the real problem wasn’t necessarily that grasses couldn’t grow in the South; it was that suitable grasses were not known due to the region’s long obsession with cotton. It would take a global network of botanists, grass explorers, and experimental field scientists to make the South a grass country. Image of USDA Circular (click to enlarge), November 16, 1881, Document, Smithsonian Institution Arch Which brings me to one document I ran across in the records of the Smithsonian’s US National Museum’s Division of Plants. Record Unit 220 consists mostly of the correspondence of George Vasey, a botanist with the US Department of Agriculture and curator of the Smithsonian’s National Herbarium from 1872 to 1893. Vasey, who specialized in grasses, devoted much of his career to bridging the academic field of systematic botany with the practical science of agriculture. This document is a questionnaire that Vasey sent to hundreds of farmers (and some botanists) in 1881 to get a sense of what grasses grew best in particular soils and climates. Vasey’s office received 350 initial responses, yet another example of the Smithsonian’s role in soliciting information from the public, what we now call crowdsourcing. (You can also read an earlier blog post about how Smithsonian scientists encouraged everyday citizens to gather and share scientific information about local places.) Farmers, seed salesmen, and university scientists not only wrote Vasey with information about local conditions; they also wanted help identifying grasses, finding seeds for the most promising species, and cultivating them. Vasey’s office did not have the resources to deal with such demands, so he started rounding up botanists in far-flung places to send him grasses to test; he worked out cooperative arrangements with university experiment stations to test both new and familiar grasses; and he petitioned Congress and his bosses for more departmental funds. These efforts endured long after Vasey’s death through the activities of the USDA’s Bureau of Plant Industry and the National Herbarium, which became the Western Hemisphere’s premiere clearinghouse for all things grass. Kudzu, by tinydr, Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. One final note about unintended consequences: Vasey’s efforts eventually  contributed to significant environmental change. Many of the highly praised forage plants he  and others studied and promoted have since been reclassified as nonnative invasives. (Though a legume and not a grass, kudzu is the best known of this lot). In addition, Vasey’s efforts helped to stimulate interest in, and a market for the grasses that would ultimately reshape the American landscape, fueling America’s love affair with lawns and all of the chemical inputs they require. But perhaps that’s another story for another day.

Bert Way is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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