THE FIRST ESTABLISHMENT OF THE FIG WASP IN CALIFORNIA.

September 9, 2020 • Fig Resources • Views: 146

By Walter T. Swingle and G. P. Rixford. at the State Fruit Growers’ Convention.

It will come as a surprise to those familiar with the history of the Smyrna fig industry in California to learn that recent investigations have convinced the writers that the fig insect (Blastophaga) has been established and breeding by myriads right in the heart of the San Joaquin valley for over forty years. During all the heated discussions of two or three decades ago as to the need of caprification to induce Smyrna fig trees to set a crop, the means of proof was right at hand.

The thousands who grew the Bulletin Smyrna trees to bearing age in the eighties only to be disappointed because of their uniform sterility, could have saved their crops by a few profichi from the trees we have discovered.

The Roeding orchard at Fresno, which was maintained for so many years at a dead loss and serious financial risk to the owners because of Mr. George C. Roeding’s enthusiastic faith in the ultimate introduction of the fig insect, would have paid from the start if only it had been known that less than a hundred miles down the San Joaquin valley was a huge capri fig tree producing multitudes of the Blastophagas every year.

The numerous and discouraging unsuccessful attempts to introduce the insect made from 1889 to 1898, need not have been made. The expense to the Department of Agriculture and the trouble taken by one of the writers to introduce and establish the North African Blastophaga in this State in 1899 were alike unnecessary. John I. Bleasdale, in the early ’70s. | It appears to us it was the late ’70s.—EDITOR.] told Dr. Gustav Eisen of his observations on caprification in Portugal, thereby arousing Dr. Eisen’s interest in the subject, so important to the later development of the Smyrna fig industry. Before this happened, however, Blastophaga was established in this State and caprification was occurring on a small scale (without artificial help) on at least one California ranch.

Discoveries in Stanislaus. —Early in December, 1908, while examining the Smyrna fig orchards near Modesto, Stanislaus county, California, the writers heard on every hand complaints as to the inefficiency of profichi with which to caprify the young Smyrna fig orchards. Male trees, though planted simultaneously with the fertile trees, had not begun to bear soon enough and there was a lively demand for capri figs from older male trees.

We were shown one old capri fig tree growing in a door yard in Modesto, the fruit of which has been used successfully to caprify young Smyrna fig trees. This tree was about 30 years old and was doubtless sent out from the Bulletin office by one of the writers. We also heard of a tree, said to be much older, that had also yielded many capri figs, used in the orchards about Modesto and Ceres, but did not at that time have an opportunity to investigate it.

In January, 1909, one of the writers was at Modesto again and looked up this tree, growing some ten miles directly west of Modesto. It proved to be a huge tree about 45 feet high, with a spread of branches of 40 feet and a trunk 8 feet in circumference just below the branches. It is growing near the house on the ranch of Samuel Gates and was there in the late summer of 1868 when he purchased the property. The tree was then seven or eight feet high and the trunk the size of a man’s wrist. It had been set out in 1867 by Mr. Louis Adams of Stockton. Mr. Gates, his wife and his daughter (Mrs. W. F. Green) were very positive that the figs on this tree had always been full of “bugs.” The daughter said: “I am 36 years old and as long ago as I can remember I tried to find figs that I could eat, but they were all full of those little winged ants.” It may be mentioned that late in the fall occasionally a fig is found that is not infested and is edible. A visit a few days later by the other of the writers convinced him likewise of the truth of this remarkable story.

During the second visit it developed that a Mr. Frazier of Stockton, who dug a well near the tree in 1869, said: “It is a male tree and will never bear fruit, but all the trees around (several other ordinary fruit trees had been set out by Mr. Adams) will bear bountifully as long as you keep this tree; so never cut it down.” Probably because of this advice, and partly because of the fine shade the tree gave in summer, it has been spared during all these years, although at certain seasons it was quite a nuisance because of the worthless fruit that dropped by the bushel just outside the kitchen door. Only within the last few years have the superabundant profichi been utilized to some extent in caprifying the young Smryna Orchards around Modesto, barley sacks full of profichi being carried away containing Blastophaga so numerous as to blacken the bags as the insects escaped from the fruit and crawled out through the coarse fabric.

A Long Memory. —The oldest son, Mr. G. G. (Jates, a mining engineer living in one of the bay cities near San Francisco, was a boy of 12 years of age when his father purchased the ranch. He went with his father to look it over previous to the purchase, was much interested in the fruit trees, and remembers distinctly that the fig trees were higher than his head. He is positive that the old one bore figs that contained insects as early as 1869. His independent testimony is strongly confirmatory of that given by his father, mother and sister.

He recollects that the tree always bore fruit from the time it was the size of a man’s wrist, when the family purchased the ranch in 1868. He cut open figs many times and always found the “worms.” It may be noted in this connection that in old capri figs that have dropped to the ground, only the wingless male Blastophaga, not unlike small grubs, can be found.

Another Witness. —Additional evidence is presented in the following letter from Mr. Homer K. Pitman, pastor of the First Presbyterian church at Modesto, himself a fig grower, who conducted both the writers to the Gates ranch and heard the detailed evidence twice:

“Mr. Walter T. Swingle: Permit me to give you some more information concerning the Gates capri fig tree. Mrs. Emily Ross, a neighbor of mine, moved to the old town of Tuolumne City in May, 1869. This is about three miles from the Gates ranch. She lived there two summers, coming back to Modesto in January) 1871. While there she was at the Gates place many times and tried to find edible figs on the capri tree. She is positive in her statement that they were ‘full of little black winged ants.’ This evidence takes us back to a very early date and is to my mind absolutely conclusive.—Homer K. Pitman, Modesto. January 26, 1909.”

This testimony is particularly strong because of the fact that Mrs. Ross moved away from the vicinity of the Gates ranch in January, 1871, and therefore could not possibly be mistaken as to the date when she noticed the fig insects, which must have been in 1869 or 1870, or during both years.

Mr. Louis Adams, the original owner of the Gates ranch, who planted the tree, was found by one of the writers, and states that he secured the fig tree, as well as his other fruit trees, from W. B. West of Stockton. He planted the trees in 1867 and sold the place to Mr. Gates the following year. He did not know about the fig insect and does nol remember whether the capri tree carried fruit when set.

The evidence presented briefly above shows beyond the possibility of a reasonable doubt that the Blastophaga has lived in the Gates tree for at least forty years, but it does not clear up the mystery of how the Blastophaga got to the isolated Gates ranch.

Mr. West’s Importations. —lt now seems probable that W. B. West, who was a progressive nurseryman and known to be much interested in figs, must have imported cuttings that carried the mamme or winter generation fruit, as such cuttings often do when taken from old trees. One of the writers planted last December in San Francisco cuttings from the Maslin orchard at Loomis with mamme attached. On the first day of May following the insects were in good condition and about ready to issue, but Ihe weather becoming warmer the figs dried up and fell off. From this

it is evident thai the Blastophaga can live on unrooted cuttings for five or six months

In the spring of 1889. Mr. M. G. Van Deman, then pomologist of the United States Department of Agriculture, introduced the Blastophaga into this country in this manner without any intention of so doing. It is probable that the insects reached Mr. West in this way and established themselves without his knowledge in the Gates tree before it left the Stockton nursery in 1867.

Other Old Capri Trees. —One of the writers has hunted up quite a number of old capri trees which he believes were, with few exceptions, derived from the same source, namely, the nursery of W. B. West of Stockton.

Within four miles of Lathrop, San Joaquin county, are two old capri trees, one on the ranch of George E. Salmon and the other on the adjoining ranch, recently purchased by W. W. Rimby. These trees are very old and that on the Rimby place was about as large as the Gates tree before a large limb and one-third of the trunk was split off by the wind a few years ago.

James Turner, now living near Lathrop, sold the ranch to Edward Gail in 1861. In an interview a few days ago with the widow of Edward Cail, now teaching a district school five miles from Lathrop, she stated to one of the writers that she married Cail and went to live on the ranch in 1885. The tree was large at that time. She distinctly remembers trying to find edible figs on the tree, but they were full of those little bugs.

Old residents of the locality assert that those trees were planted more than forty years ago. Mrs. McKenzie, widow of a pioneer, with her husband settled on the ranch adjoining the Salmon place in 1864, and says the Rimby tree was planted three or four years after. Mr. Salmon has lived on his place since 1898 and was familiar with it several years previously and is positive that the two trees have carried an over-wintering crop since 1880. Mr. Edward Reynolds, a neighbor, is sure that the trees have carried mamme through the winter for more than twenty years.

In Stockton, Mr. C. W. Logan, corner Oak and Union streets, has seven capri trees from which large quantities of profichi have been taken during the last three years by Smyrna fig growers of the San Joaquin valley. The largest of these is over four feet in circumference two feet from the ground. They were planted many years ago by Dennis Crane, according to Mr. Joice, a neighbor, about 38 years ago. He says that they have always carried an over-wintering crop. Matthew Crane, son of Dennis Crane, now living in San Francisco, says his father bought the place in 1865 and the trees were planted between 1866 and 1870. He is positive that they carried a mamme crop as early as 1868.

At Merced on the Dwyer place there is an old capri tree that was planted at least thirty years ago, but not infested until last spring when the insects were sent in some capri figs secured at Ripon by one of the writers. The profichi from this tree, like most capri figs when not infested by the wasp are sweet and edible.

Within two to four miles from Ripon, San Joaquin county, are thirty old capri trees growing on the farms of Mr. Watkins, Judge Preuitt. Mrs. Frederick, Fred E. Kincaid, John Riddeland and Frank Hutchinson. Most of these trees were infested five or six years ago by George C. Roeding and are now producing great quantities of profichi which are purchased by the Smyrna fig growers of the San Joaquin valley. These are very old, some of them with trunks over two feet in diameter, and are all of the same stock.

In the vicinity of Milton. Calaveras county, are twelve old capri trees, none of which are infested, with the exception of one on the Rhodes Pros, place, which was caprified with capri figs sent by the writer from the Loomis orchard last spring.

They were planted by Robert Cooper, James Williams and Samuel Hayes, brothers-in law, some time between 1868 and 1870. They are all alike and the same as others from the West nursery at Stockton. They are growing in fields and about old deserted homesteads. The fruit when ripe is sweet and quite palatable, like the profichi of most capri trees, and what escapes the birds is eagerly devoured by stock.

At Vina on the Governor Stanford ranch, are four old capri trees, probably planted in 1881-

1882, at the time the cuttings from the Bulletin importation were put out. the Governor having had a large number of cuttings, mostly of the Smyrna type. One of these capri figs is of the Milco variety. The Blastophaga was established on these trees, as well as on several other capri trees in the county, seven or eight years ago, by Mr. W. Herbert Samson of Corning, Cal. The old Smyrna trees, some of which have trunks two feet in diameter, are producing bountiful crops of luscious figs.

There is one capri tree at San Rafael. Marin county, on a place owned by George I). Shearer and two at Los Gatos, Santa Clara county, owned by Mr. Boyd. These trees, which look to be about thirty years old. were infested with figs sent from Loomis last spring. These and a large number of capri trees in many different localities in Californa, Arizona and the Hawaiian islands have been infested with Blastophaga in accordance with the plan of the Bureau of Plant Industry of the United States Department of Agriculture, in order to provide against the possibility of the loss of the insect through frost or other cause, as sometimes happens in the Smyrna fig districts of Asia Minor and Greece.

The Milco Variety.— A careful examination of all these old capri trees and comparison of the fruit shows that, with the exception of the San Rafael tree and two or three at the Vina ranch, they are of the same variety, namely, the one which somebody in this State has called the Milco. after the late G. N. Milco of Stockton. It has also been distributed under the name of Endrick, though most of the nurserymen’s catalogues of 1865 to 1880 describe the Endrich as a white edible fig. Mr. George C. Roeding, who has studied many of these old capri trees, is also of the opinion that they are of the Milco variety, but does not believe that it was imported by Milco, as claimed by some, while it is almost certain that it was imported by W. B. West. In 1865, according to Dr. Eisen, W. B. West imported by way of the Isthmus, the overland route not then having been completed, 22 varieties of figs from the south of Europe. It is reasonable to suppose that the Gates and other old trees were of this importation and came with the figs of the mamme crop attached and that the beneficent insect upon which the whole Smyrna fig industry rests was in this way first introduced into the new world. Mr. Fred M. West of Stockton, who died within the past year, was from 1861 to 1868. a partner in the nursery business with his brother, W. B. West. In answer to an inquiry of one of the writers, he stated that “if we imported the capri fig tree and the Blastophaga it was purely accidental, as we knew nothing of the tree nor insect, but supposed that we were importing and distributing a choice Smyrna fig.”

If We Had Only Known. —Had the facts we now bring to light been known 35 years ago when there were hundreds of enthusiastic growers of the Bulletin Smyrna fig trees scattered all over the State, there can be little doubt that this country would have ceased to import Smyrna figs twenty years ago and some millions of dollars would have been paid to the California growers instead of being sent to Turkey.

Had the fact been discovered fifteen years ago. when strenuous efforts were being made to introduce the Blastophaga and when the sterility of the Roeding and other Smyrna orchards had been rightly demonstrated to be due to the absence of this insect, there can be little doubt that shrewd operator could have disposed of the (Jates tree and its swarms of beneficent insects for a sum well up in four figures.

As further evidence of the early introduction of the Blastophaga we may mention a very intelligent and well known lady of Stockton, widow of the late J. I). Peters, said to one of the writers that she was one day in her husband’s office when (J. N. Milco came in and showed her and Mr. Peters a u”inber of figs containing “little flies,” without which Milco said Smyrna figs could not be grown. Being asked if she could give the data of this indent she replied she could not say exactly, but that it was one or two years before Mr. Peters built his new building on Channel street. The building bears the date 1888 cut in the stone coping. This definitely shows the existence of the

Blastophaga in this State in 1886 or 1887. After all, the chief lesson to be learned from this remarkable history is the necessity of a scientific understanding of facts to render them of any practical value.

Two practical questions are being given attention : first, the precocious bearing of the (rates capri tree, if it is maintained in other places, is likely to render it a valuable variety to set out in young Smyrna fig orchards, for most varieties of capri figs do not carry the Blastophaga all the year around when they are young. Mr. Samuel Gates has presented a quantity of cuttings to the Bureau of Plant Industry, which with other valuable capri figs will be sent free to anyone who will plant three seedling figs for each cutting received. The second question is whether the Blastophaga in the (Jates and other of the old trees are in any way different from those brought from Algeria in 1899, and in particular whether the (Jates tree and any other tree that may have been infested from it. are free from the messmate, Philotrypesis. which infest most of the capri trees of the old world. These harmful insects did not get established when the Algerian Blastophaga were introduced, and from careful examination of the fruit of hundreds of capri trees, it is confidently believed that the Philotrypesis has not obtained lodgment in this State. This is a matter for congratulation, for in Asia Minor the fig wasps are crowded out to such an extent that the Smyrna fig growers are obliged to use a much greater number of capri figs with which to fertilize their trees than do the California growers. Fig growers are cautioned not to import capri figs from oriental fig districts, for the risk of introducing this harmful companion of the Blastophaga is too great.

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