Plant Quarantine: A Footnote to the Discussion

AMERICA is of polyglot origin. This is as true of plant life as of society. The colonists and pioneers brought with them seeds, roots, and bulbs with which the flora of the New World has been enormously enriched, to the profit and comfort of our people and the beautifying of our homesteads and landscapes.

Dr. U. P. Hedrick, Chief in Research of the Division of Horticulture of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, a great fruitauthority, illustrates this plant cosmopolitanism in respect of fruits: —

A generation ago nearly all of our fruits were of European origin. Without importation at that time, fruit-growing would never have had the stimulus and obtained the impetus to make it what it is now. American horticulture has reached its high estate very largely through the untiring zeal of amateurs of one or two generations ago, who in their turn had their inspiration and obtained their stock of fruits from Europe.

Equally forceful citations might be made, if space permitted, to show that of the economic grains, of the vegetables, of the field crops, we have had the best of the world through importation. Anyone who has visited the great botanical gardens will need no suggestion, if he has been observant, of the way in which our gardens have been enriched from foreign sources.

When our ancestors came in they undoubtedly brought with them some of the human and plant diseases of the lands from which they came, as well as that sturdy spirit of pioneering and adventure which has made America great. If the ideals which the Federal Department of Agriculture is now attempting to enforce had then prevailed in respect of people as well as plants, the pioneers would not have entered, or if admitted might have been given such ‘precautionary treatments’ as to leave them little or no vitality.

These words are written because it seems now the view of the Department of Agriculture that we no longer need plants from abroad, save as one or several of its officials determine. We must not bring in needed new or old plants, because if we do we may bring in with them plant diseases and injurious insects.

On August 20, 1912, there was enacted a Federal statute broadly known as the ‘Plant Quarantine Act,’ intended, if the report of the Congressional Committee which urged its passage on Congress is to be believed, to provide adequate means for protection against the introduction into the United States of ‘any tree, plant, or fruit disease or of any injurious insect new or not theretofore widely prevalent or distributed within and throughout the United States.’ This law gave the Secretary of Agriculture power ‘to regulate the importation of nursery stock and other plants and plant products,’ and otherwise to enforce its purpose. It was and is a wise and beneficent law, if wisely and beneficently administered.

But under a strained and yet legally untested construction of this law there is being established what amounts to a plant dictatorship of controlling character. Nominally administered by the Secretary of Agriculture, who is more or less temporary in tenure, this law is in practice construed and enforced by the Federal Horticultural Board.

In ‘Plants and Plant Pests,’ printed in the Atlantic for June, Dr. Charles L. Marlatt, the head of that board, discusses the situation. On behalf of the Committee on Horticultural Quarantine, I am accorded space to comment in reply.

Dr. Marlatt insists that Quarantine 37 is not ‘a practical embargo on entry of plants,’ and that it will not ‘ultimately place a permanent check on the development of American horticulture.’ Categorically, the first of these statements is true, for the word ‘embargo’ is not used either in the Act or in the Quarantine. The effect is obtained, however, by regulations so intricate and severe that an embargo virtually is set up against such importations as the Federal Horticultural Board deems inadvisable.

Before I may bring in any new roses, for example, I must state in intimate detail the quantity, the estimated invoice value of each, the name or exact designation of each species, variety, or type of plant to be imported, the originator and the year of origination. I must then give the name and address of the exporter, the name and address of the foreign grower, the country where grown, the locality where grown, and answer seven other questions as related to eight paragraphs of detailed and difficult requirements, prior to making a liability agreement, the violation of any part of which binds me ‘to pay the United States, as liquidated damages, a sum equal to twice the invoice value of the stock imported as shown in said permit, if such value be $2500 or less, but in no case shall such liability of the applicant exceed $5000.’ I must promise to maintain the identity of any shipment of plants received ‘under the number of the permit granting authority for its importation’ for a period sometimes equaling five years. Even with all this red tape, my application may be denied if, in the judgment of the ‘F. H. B.,’ as it is familiarly known, I can get the particular variety in America, or if it thinks I ought not to have it anyway. In any case or event, no plant may be brought in with soil on its roots; all such are definitely excluded, or embargoed.

As to the second statement in Dr. Marlatt’s summary of objections, let me quote again Dr. Hedrick, author of The Cyclopedia of American Fruits, who in speaking of Quarantine 37 says: —

It is doing more harm to American horticulture than good. There are advantages, but they are far outweighed by disadvantages.

The Chairman of the Federal Horticultural Board insists in effect that the restrictions complained of are justified by the dangers of new pests, and that such dangers cannot be adequately guarded against by inspection in the countries from which plants may come.

It is true that new pests can come in, do come in, and will continue to come in. One of the warmest supporters of the Quarantine is on record as stating that no quarantine does any more than delay the entry of pests. Dr. H. H. Whetzel, head of the Department of Plant Pathology of Cornell University, thus writes: —

As a general proposition I seriously doubt that any quarantine can be made absolutely efficient. . . . There is good fundamental evidence for holding that quarantines in general may be more harmful to the public good than they are useful.

Dr. C. R. Crosby, a well-known Cornell entomologist, has this point of view: —

It would seem to a disinterested person that the danger from the importation of such material has been greatly exaggerated. . . . Starting with the quarantines established to check the spread of the San José scale, there have grown up large and expensive organizations for inspecting all sorts of plants whether they need it or not.

It is to the interest of countries from which plants come to America to have them pest-free, and ‘Dutch cleanliness’ is not an empty phrase in reference to exports from Holland. A detailed statement made by Mr. N. Van Poeteren, Chief of the Government Phytopathological Service at Wageningen, Holland, emphasizes this position. Personal contact with Mr. W. B. Lobjoit, who in England controls the government service as related to admission of plants from abroad, has convinced me that in that land, much more helpless with respect to pests from abroad than the United States, the problem is successfully solved by dependence upon care at the point of shipment, together with adequate attention in suspected cases when the plants come in.

Much emphasis has been laid in Dr. Marlatt’s defense on the prevalence of the San José scale, an introduced pest. Yet when only a few weeks ago I asked Dr. Jardine, the present Secretary of Agriculture, whether we had more or less and better or worse apples and other fruits since it became necessary to introduce better sanitation into orchards because of the San José scale menace, he instantly answered that we now have more and better fruits. The spraying and the care necessary to combat scale have eliminated many local pests and resulted in eventual advantage. It was not without reason that Dr. L. H. Bailey, the most eminent American horticulturist, has said that the Colorado potato-beetle was a blessing in disguise.

Dr. Marlatt insists that ‘Quarantine 37 has no tariff object whatsoever.’ Yet his argument emphasizes the great growth of nurseries, and the large volume of additional production in the United States that has resulted from this Quarantine, which, though it has raised prices from one hundred to five hundred per cent or more, ‘has no tariff object whatsoever.’ Every nurseryman who now defends Quarantine 37 openly exults in the price-protection it gives him. I never heard one of them even mention the pest-protection feature.

In his reply to Mr. Hamblin’s article, ‘Plants and Plant Policies,’ Dr. Marlatt insists in effect that he has not interfered seriously with ‘ the needs of botanical gardens, arboretums, experiment stations, and other similar public institutions.’ The directors of such institutions do not seem to agree with him. Dr. N. L. Britton, Directorin-Chief of the New York Botanical Garden, writes: —

I would say that I have long been of the opinion that, owing to widespread dissatisfaction and great difference of opinion regarding the administration of this Quarantine, an impartial investigation of its operations is extremely desirable. . . .

Dr. C. Stuart Gager, Director of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, expresses himself thus: —

I have experienced a complete change of view with reference to Quarantine 37, and this largely as the result of the manner of its administration. At first I was heartily in favor of it, but I believe now that its administration is serving more to discourage horticulture in America than to keep out plant diseases.

Further on in the same letter, Dr. Gager speaks of his discouragement ‘almost to the point of despair, by our inability to secure in the open market anything much beyond the ordinary run of shrubs and trees. Very few of the rare species and varieties are now offered for sale by American growers.’

Dr. George T. Moore, Director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, much more familiarly known as ‘the Shaw Gardens,’ in St. Louis, thus writes: —

I think we are all agreed that the law under which Quarantine 37 operates is entirely satisfactory.... It is the administration of the act by the Federal Horticultural Board that everyone really interested objects to. . . . There is certainly much room for improvement in the administration of the Act, so far as botanical gardens are involved, and all this quite independent of the question as to whether a quarantine has ever accomplished anything which in the smallest way would offset the loss in the administration of such an act.

America’s greatest dendrologist and tree authority, Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, of the Arnold Arboretum, recently sent a famous plantsman, Dr. John F. Rock, on a three-year expedition to the far reaches of Tibet to explore sections never before botanically scanned. From sad previous experiences in respect to the handling of material received as a result of these explorations, he felt warranted in asking the Federal Horticultural Board for permission to have the shipments sent directly to the Arboretum, near Boston, and there carefully inspected, either by the scientists of Harvard University or by those delegated from Washington. This permission has been refused, save in the impossible event that the plants, which must be sent as they are collected from time to time, could be associated into several large shipments. So he has regretfully concluded to divert this material to England, where it will be received without being destroyed by zeal and fumigation, and the plants thus first brought to light not entirely lost to science and the plant world, even though kept out of the United States.

It is admitted that there is always danger that some new disease or pest may come in, either on plants, on baggage, in ship ballast, or even on humans. I well remember the remark of Dr. Bailey of Cornell: ‘Yes, there are doubtless harmful bacteria on everything, even on the lips of the wives and the babies we kiss, but I think we shall continue to kiss them!’

Much has been said and will yet be said concerning the impending exclusion at the end of this year of all narcissus bulbs, meaning the daffodils, jonquils, and other garden adornments of which each year the United States has brought in, mostly from Holland, about a hundred million bulbs. There is not one word in the Act of August 20, 1912, to justify the procedure of the last three years, during which unlimited importation of these bulbs has been permitted and even encouraged, despite the asserted dangers they impose. The plain intent of the Act is that if danger exists the plant products may be excluded, but there is no provision for taking hazards in the face of an admitted danger.

Now it is quite well known that the several insects said by Dr. Marlatt to relate to narcissus bulbs are already widely prevalent in that portion of the United States in which he expects narcissus bulbs to be grown, and I think he knows that these pests do not persist in the cold East, where most of these bulbs are used. The final exclusion has no other justification than that it may build up an American bulb industry, an action not contemplated in the law.

Dr. Marlatt does not make plain in his apology that he is also shutting out many other desirable bulbs just because he thinks the more importation there is the more danger there is, and it is best to have no dangers even if we have no bulbs. The basis is precisely that which would exist if all American mothers were suddenly to realize that the babies which come to them might have scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, and other difficult diseases, wherefore it would be much better not to have the babies!

To emphasize further this existence of a horticultural dictatorship, let me quote from Dr. Marlatt his insistence that the only safe thing is ‘a policy of exclusion of all plants not absolutely essential to the horticultural and forestry needs of the United States.’ He then refers to Quarantine 37 as permitting the admission of plants ‘which are believed to be necessary’ or ‘for which a reasonable need can be shown.’ On another page he courteously hopes that it will never be necessary ‘to make it impossible to provide for the entry, under proper safeguards, of any plant whatsoever for which a real need can be shown.’ To what, exactly, this real need is limited may be noted in his remark as to arboretums, where he says, ‘The conditioning of entry on a publicservice basis is believed to be necessary,’ while elsewhere he refers to ‘the mere personal gratification of the thousands of individuals’ who he thinks might want to import plants if he would permit it. To all these he earnestly commends his preference that ‘the ordinary garden-lover secure the restricted plants from home sources,’ despite the known nonexistence, in many items, of these ‘home sources.’ It ought to be noted that the whole matter simmers down to what some one person has ‘ believed to be necessary’ or ‘absolutely essential.’ Does not this define a horticultural dictatorship, in good working order?

Those of us who have no trade interest in this matter; who believe that half the expense now put on exclusion would, if put on research and control effort, give better results; who believe that there are foreign governments willing and able to help us if we will coöperate with them in preventing the admission of pests they do not themselves want to send us; who resent the forbidding methods of the Federal Horticultural Board, have recently joined in petitioning Secretary of Agriculture Jardine to investigate, independent of the accused body, this whole subject. The hope of American horticulture at this moment is centred upon Secretary Jardine. There is no hope in the Federal Horticultural Board, made up dominantly of those whose energies have been given to the investigation of pathological or insectivorous conditions, and who are not plantsmen. We urge the Secretary to give the plant a chance against the bug and the pest!