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FRANCIS PEABODY SHARP

Canada's First Apple Breeder1

1823 - 1903

Today when we see the endless rows of apple trees stretching over the hillsides in rural areas of New Brunswick, it may come as a surprise to some of us to learn that 150 years ago, conventional knowledge held that apples were not a viable commercial crop in our climate! They were not native to our country and imported varieties either succumbed to our cold winters or else they would not ripen in our short season. It took one brave and determined man to prove that wisdom is greater than convention. At a time when the process of controlled cross-pollination of plants was an emerging new science, Francis Sharp began, on his own initiative, Canada's first truly scientific apple crossbreeding experimental program.

Sharp was born in Northampton, Carleton County, New Brunswick in 1823. He was the son of Adam Boyle Sharp and Maria Peabody, granddaughter of Captain Francis Peabody, a Massachusetts Planter who founded Gagetown and Maugerville. His father, Adam Sharp, was a successful and prominent lumberman and merchant in the town of Upper Woodstock. Francis' early years were spent working as a clerk in his father's store, but he was curious about the natural world around him and his interests became diverted to gardening and orchards.

He was self taught, subscribing to many agricultural magazines and building a large library of books by leading horticultural authorities. His research led him to conclude that the reason New Brunswick had not had any success growing apples was because the imported varieties could not adapt to our cold winters and/or short seasons.

In 1844, at the age of 21, he bought his father's farm in Northampton and there he planted his first orchard of a modest 100 trees and also established a small nursery. He then started his own experimental cross breeding program with the objective of developing hardy apple varieties suitable for our New Brunswick climate. Although not educated as a scientist, his observations were astute, his experiments meticulous, and his results astounding! He documented everything and refused to accept limitations.

Sharp was knowledgeable about the newest scientific discoveries in regards to the process of pollination. He was aware that a small number of horticulturists were experimenting with applying controlled methods of hybridizing with pears and other fruits, but nobody had done this with apples. The reader must appreciate that this was a new area of science, and that in the Province of New Brunswick there was not a Department of Agriculture let alone a government horticulturist. It was general knowledge that one could only propagate apple varieties by grafting and that planting seeds usually produced inferior varieties that seldom resembled the parent tree. In fact, grafting has been used to propagate apples and other fruits such as pears, peaches and grapes for thousands of years going back to ancient China and to the Egyptians. But, the concept of developing new varieties from controlled cross-pollination was an emerging new science.

From his horticultural books and magazines Sharp was aware that apples were grown very successfully in the cold climate of Russia. He reasoned that these hardy varieties could be grown in the harsh climate of New Brunswick. He was also quite aware that Russia was a long distance to travel to explore orchards and gather scionwood from popular varieties in that country. Equipped with his knowledge of the new science of hybridization, in 1849 he ordered some Russian apple seeds from Dunnings in Bangor, Maine. Dunnings were well known for importing seeds from cold regions for gardeners and farmers to plant in the cold climate of the northern states. Sharp planted the Russian seeds in November to allow them to stratify over winter in the frozen ground, about 1,000 seeds in total. The location of the nursery where he planted these seeds was just west of the old Court House in Upper Woodstock. He would observe these seeds germinate and grow, tending them until they started to bear, recording their rate of growth, their hardiness, resistance to disease, and the kind of fruit they bore. To his amazement, in the fourth season after planting, in 1854, one of these trees bore fruit. Most apple trees planted from seed, as opposed to grafting on a rootstock, will take from eight to ten years to bear fruit for the first time. Northern Spy, even when grafted as a young tree, generally takes fourteen years on a standard rootstock. Sharp was amazed at the precocious characteristic of this tree and was even more pleased with the size and attractiveness of the fruit it bore. The fruit were also of good quality, especially for cooking into pies and sauce, which were common products of the homestead kitchens in those days. The tree had proven to be hardy, withstanding the cold New Brunswick winters, and so he decided to select it from the others and give it the name New Brunswick apple, better known as the New Brunswicker in later years.

Step one was complete. He had originated an apple of sufficient hardiness and quality to start his hybridization program. Now he would attempt to cross that variety with another to improve the quality even more, especially for improving the flavour as a dessert apple and the keeping or storage capability, two qualities the New Brunswick apple lacked. He had located some scions of the Fameuse, an apple variety popular in Quebec along the St. Lawrence River, believed to be from seeds brought to this country by the early French colonists. He "made trees" by grafting these scions onto rootstocks, and when they bore fruit he crossed them with the New Brunswicker using artificially controlled methods. From this first experiment he produced 1,800 seeds for planting, and from these hybrid seedling trees in 1866 he discovered the earliest bearing, solid red apple known at that time. He called it Early Scarlet, but later changed it to Crimson Beauty. It was the first true hybrid apple from a controlled cross-breeding experiment. It has since then been used in breeding programs around the world to impart earliness and red colour to new varieties.

Many years after he had perfected his cross-breeding technique, Sharp read a detailed paper on this technique to the Fruit and Dairy Association at a meeting in Fredericton, Feb 5, 1896.

 
"About the second day of blossoming go at the mother tree, thin out the branches heavily so as to secure a thorough nourishment of the remaining fruits with abundance of sap. Out of all fruits that have blossomed so as to secure one uniform age in those blossoms you design operating upon next morning, when you must examine each bloom by means of a pocket magnifier (a keen naked eye may do) to see that nose of the anthers have burst and thus the blossoms become self-fertilized and therefore useless for a cross.

"Next cut off all the blossoms in the bunch but one, to secure rich nourishment to the fruit left by itself. Next remove all the stamens or anthers by using a very small sharp knife or scissors or small tweezers, being careful not to wound the pistol. Next procure your supply of pollen by cutting from the prepared tree a large number of blossoms with long stems. With a very sharp knife pare off all the organs outside the row of stamens. These blossoms should all have a part of the anthers burst and the pollen just ready to fly at the least jar or disturbance. Make these blossoms up into little brooms by tying them with fine thread upon small sticks the size of a friction match and four inches long. About a dozen or more blossoms to each broom. Put the brooms in a tight paper bag or receptacle to prevent drying. Keep them cool till used. In about 10 or 12 hours from time of cutting stamens from mother tree gently brush these little brooms over the prepared blossoms scattering the abundant pollen upon the exposed stigmas. But as I am never sure that the mother blooms are just ripe to receive the pollen I make two subsequent applications about 12 hours apart and this if carefully done is sure to effect the desired result."

 

Sharp's investigations caught the attention of American and Canadian scientists who came to visit him in Upper Woodstock including Professor Joseph Lancaster Budd, a Pomologist at the Agriculture College at Ames, Iowa, and Professor Charles Gibbs of the Dominion Government who had a diverse collection of fruit and ornamental trees in Abbotsford, Quebec. These two men travelled to Europe and Russia in 1882 to study fruits growing in their natural habitat. The United States Government had offered to pay Mr. Sharp full expenses if he would accompany them on their travels, but because of a family illness at home he was unable to go.

The scientists imported 350 varieties of Russian apples for trial, and from those they provided Sharp with 50 of what they considered to be the best for testing. Some of these Russian varieties are still found growing in the old orchards in New Brunswick today; Yellow Transparent, Alexander, Red Astrachan, and Tetofsky.

From his crossbreeding, or hybridization, experiments Sharp developed many new hardy varieties, and from his nurseries he shipped grafted stock all over North America.

Sharp didn't limit his experiments to discovering new varieties, he also developed tree planting, training and pruning methods that were unique, making close plantings of dwarf trees in orchards of apples, plums and peaches. He had apple trees only 3 feet high loaded down with fruit, and in one experiment he raised a 6 inch high plum tree with a plum on it. As written in one newspaper article about Sharp's orchards, "Where except in Carleton County has one man picked and packed 27 barrels of blemish free apples in one day without a ladder or a basket?" The modern, high density, dwarf tree orchards with which we are so familiar today are the result of his pioneering work. His fruit tree nursery business expanded to several locations and his commercial orchards grew to enormous size. His nursery stock included many hardy varieties of pear, plum, and cherry. He also grew grapes, gooseberries, currants, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries. Most remarkably, in his orchards he grew and marketed peaches, a feat never again accomplished in this area.

He was continually taking out mortgages to purchase more land for expanding his orchards that were supplying him with a healthy income. His primary mortgage holder was Lewis P. Fisher, the first mayor of Woodstock and a wealthy lawyer. Sharp also rented properties for planting orchards, entering into agreements with the owners in which they received a share of the profits. In other situations he planted orchards for the owners and was paid to manage them. By 1890, both of his industries, nurseries and orchards, were the largest in Canada. In his nurseries he had an inventory of over 900,000 apple, plum, cherry, and pear trees. From his apple orchards he was shipping annually up to 18,000 barrels of fruit to the United States, plus another 7,000 barrels locally.

In May of 1881 a devastating fire destroyed most of the nursery buildings and the Sharp home. Although he had no fire insurance at that time, his industries were starting to flourish and he soon rebounded from that disaster. However, in 1890 the McKinley trade tariff was imposed on Canadian trade with United States and it greatly hurt Sharp's industries. In 1892 his son and business partner, Franklin, died of tuberculosis, barely five years after he had taken over the orchard and nursery businesses. The following winter also proved to be devastating to his plum orchard and most of his trees were lost.

The shrinking income from his orchards was not sufficient to cover his mortgage debts. Remaining members of his family tried unsuccessfully at rebuilding his nursery and orchard businesses. The family assets dwindled away and properties went up for mortgage sale.

Sadly, Francis Peabody Sharp died in 1903, having lost his personal fortune and most of what he held dear.

Just a few months after his death the New Brunswick Fruit Growers Association was formed and the industry changed and moved forward. Most of Mr. Sharp's experimental orchards were cut down and his work all but forgotten, but the legacy he left was the recognition that New Brunswick could be a viable participant in the North American fruit market.

His pioneering work in scientific hybridizing has earned him the distinction of being “Canada's first fruit breeder” by the renowned Brogdale Horticultural Trust in England. Even today, in the Trust's National Apple Collection at Brogdale in Kent can be found Sharp's Crimson Beauty apple.

He has been referred to as "the Apple King of New Brunswick", "the Father of Fruit Culture", and he was regarded as "one of the most eminent investigators into plant life as applied to fruit growing in northern latitudes." Without any doubt he was for over half a century the leading authority in New Brunswick on horticulture.

Today the rolling hillsides covered in sweet-scented apple blossoms in June stand as a testament to the genius and dedication of a true Canadian pioneer.

 

1. Text and image courtesy of Daryl Hunter. Extracted from a pamphet Mr. Hunter prepared for Kings Landing.