Mar 12, 2008
Horticulture History Book Hits Really Close to Home

When publisher Matt McCallum handed me the book and asked me to write something about it, I went right to the index.

Not surprisingly, my name was not there. It takes more, apparently, to make it into the book than spending a year as a half-time college student technician washing glassware, measuring the length of buckwheat roots treated with various concoctions or running Duncan’s Multiple Range Test pushing data through a mechanical calculator.

I didn’t know it then – I was 19 and a sophomore fresh the dairy farm – but the person I worked for in the Michigan State University Department of Horticulture, John Bukovac, would become a giant in the world of horticultural research. The stuff I was washing out of test tubes were fruit growth regulators suspended in lanolin grease (there were not very soluble) and being tested for their ability to thin peaches and apples, loosen cherries from the trees, stimulate bud break or flatten or elongate apples.

Bukovac, needless to say, is listed in the index with other horticultural academic giants like William Beal, Liberty Hyde Bailer, Harold B. Tukey, John Carew, Sylvan Wittwer, Stanley Johnston, Bob Carlson, Stan Ries and dozens of others.

The book – “From Seed To Fruit: 150 years of horticulture at Michigan State (1855-2005)” – is also a testament to three co-authors who elected to spend their retirement years compiling this amazing story.

Frank Dennis, the man from upstate New York who joined the MSU horticulture faculty in 1968 and retired in 1996, made this history the mission of his retirement, shooting for publication in the year of the 150th birthday of the nation’s first land-grant university. He missed it by two years, but got it done. He is listed first of the co-authors.

Another co-author is George Kessler, the Penn State graduate who obtained his PhD when MSU was still MSC, Michigan State College. He retired in 1982 after 35 years on the horticulture faculty. The third co-author is Harold Davidson, who joined the MSC faculty in 1950 and retired in 1984. He did not live to see the final report; he died in 2002.

The book ends with a “poetic postscript” penned by Dennis, in which he lists the 50-some horticultural faculty and staff members he worked with during his tenure.

”When I arrived in ’68, John Carew was head.

”He was noted for his poetry, and the kind words that he said.

”The garden was outside the door with its fountain, apple trees,

”And kids came there to study and just to shoot the breeze. . . . .

”Kessler taught the intro course, helped students find their route,

”I joined with him to teach a course in fruit. . . .

”Davidson knew the answers for growing nursery stock,

”His book became a seller, solid as a rock.”

Bukovac, of course, makes the poem:

”Bukovac was working on a way to drop a cherry,

”How hormones penetrate the leaf – that’s what’s necessary.”

The poem is about 100 lines long and “summarizes” the key things staff members were known for from 1968 to 2005.

The book costs $25 plus 6 percent sales tax ($26.50 total). Add $2.75 for shipping and handling. You save $1.25 on shipping costs when ordering additional copies. You can order by writing Frank Dennis, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1325.

Or you can go to the Web site and order there. Click on books.

The book, in Dennis’s words, “chronicles teaching, research, Extension and student activities in the Department of Horticulture from the founding of Michigan Agricultural College in 1855 to its 150th birthday in 2005. Many photographs illustrate the evolution of the department as the college grew from ‘an oak openinig’ to a university with more than 40,000 students.”

Included are chapters on faculty and teaching aspects, research, Extension, student organizations and the gardens ad arboretums maintained by the horticulture department. Tables list all the cultivars released over the years, including, of course, the peaches of Stanley Johnson, the vegetables of Shigemi Honma and Robert Carlson’s Mark rootstock. All faculty members are listed, all students who earned graduate degrees, all district Extension agents, all staff members who completed 10 or more years working for the department. And, of course, the index.

If everyone listed buys a copy of the book, it’ll be “a seller.”

Needless to say, the book means more to me than probably seems reasonable. While I wasn’t a horticulture major, the year working with horticultural scientists shaped what I would later come to love about my work – writing about the science of agriculture and especially fruits and vegetables.

It wasn’t all scut work in the lab. I spent a lot of time grinding plants and measuring the differing uptake of radioactive carbon by stems or roots or leaves. Our lab carried the menacing yellow and black label warming folks of radioactive materials. During the summer, I worked in the fields and orchards that sat where the medical school now sits, since then having moved to less expensive real estate two miles south. I’m measure the diameter of hundreds of apples to see their response to growth regulators. Other student workers and I did some horsing around as well. I remember a friendly contest involving throwing oversized cucumbers.

If I could add a line or two to Dennis’s poem, I’d say:

”Lehnert had to figure how to get that glassware clean,

”Believe him when he tells you, nothing sticks like lanolin.

”Perhaps he could have gained a spot in this amazing tome,

”If he’d not thrown that cucumber when Stan Ries was around.”

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