April 5, 2021 by D.Fathia
Updated April 5, 2021

Walter Tennyson Swingle: the man who brought botanical diversity to the US

Walter Tennyson Swingle: the man who brought botanical diversity to the US

The development and perfection of botany, the study of organisms in plants, is the reason behind the myriad of flora we are now witnessing. People have gone from simple classifications of plants to genetic engineering and cross-species fertilization. These efforts have led to the emergence of new incredible species and unique elements.

Throughout history, there have been several men and women responsible for the advent and development of this field of research. They are responsible for the perfection of agriculture and related fields, offering mankind new gastronomic pleasures and distinguished beauty.

Their efforts to come up with new techniques of fertilization, hybridization, and exploring unknown species yielded a revolt in the sector.

Men such as Walter Tennyson Swingle made the difference between different regions shrink and drew an image of a universal village of plants. This article explores the gifts of this man to mankind.

Who is Walter Tennyson Swingle?

Walter Tennyson Swingle is an American botanist. He was born on January 8, 1871, in Canaan, Pennsylvania. He moved with his family to Kansa, where he attended Kansas State Agricultural College. From 1895 to 1898, he attended the University of Bonn. Later journals and archives show that his upbringing in farms might have had a significant impact on his interest in botany.

Agricultural botanist

By the age of 20, Swingle had published twenty-six papers on plant pathology, breeding, and genetics; he was the sole author of six of these papers.

By 1891, Swingle was offered a position in the United States Department of Agriculture. Soon he was dispatched to Florida to deal with new diseases affecting the citrus groves; a mission that set in motion a lifelong passion. He was able to detect and describe several diseases, enact insect control measures, and even produce new hybrids. During his visit to Florida, he sought to engineer new frost-resistant and diseases resistant citrus trees.

After a short trip to Europe and a few years with the pioneers of plant physiology,Strassburger and Pfeffer, he returned to the states to continue his work in agronomy, plant pathology, and plant life history. He was a pioneer in what we call in today’s terminology germplasm. He recognized the need for genetic diversity and the importance of collecting economically vital plants.

Swingle established the Subtropical Agricultural Station at Chapman Field, along with his colleague, H.J Webber. He had quite a productive retirement at the University of Miami, where he worked as a consultant on the botany of tropical plants.

Swingle’s story with dates:

His interest in tropical and subtropical plants led Swingle to travel to the Mediterranean countries of Europe, North Africa, and Asia in search of new species. Fascinated by the date palm, he brought back to the states around 400 date palm species from North Africa and especially Algeria.

His samples were mainly from the deglet noor variety. He handed them to Tempe, Arizona. Unfortunately, they were mishandled and eventually perished. The second trial was in California. He helped to launch and establish the Date Garden at Indo. The garden was meant for research in the date’s species. Now, California accounts for about 80 percent of the United States' production of dates. The mild and sunny climate resembled date palms’ original habitat and made this variety thrive beyond expectation. Date Palm Festival took off in 1921 in celebration of the success of breeding deglet noor dates in California.

Swingle had also imported Medjool dates offshoots from Algeria. The legend goes that he actually saved this variety as it was facing extinction due to diseases. He cured the offshoots and cultivated the surviving ones in California. The transplant was a huge success and Medjool dates are now among the most appreciated and productive date palm trees.

The fig wasp and the thriving Smyrna figs:

Walter Tennyson Swingle is not only accredited with the exodus of date palms to the United States but also with the thriving Smyrna fig groves.

At the time, one of the biggest problems for farmers in California was that Smyrna figs were not yielding ripened fruits. Swingle traveled to Algeria again and sought knowledge from farmers there. He was told about the wasps living in a wild inedible fig tree called caprifig. These wasps could pollinate the Smyrna figs since the latter only contain female flowers and could not be self-pollinated.

He brought these wasps and samples of the caprifigs back to the United States. By 1900 California was rejoicing the thriving Smyrna trees orchards thanks to the wasp calledBlastophaga.

Later evidence has been revealed that caprifigs were already successfully established in California before Swingle imported them. However, no one can deny him credit for his efforts in the field and his significant contribution to the thriving sector.

Introducing the pistachio nut

Walter. T. Swingle was an agricultural explorer who has traveled the four corners of the world in search of new plants and new species. One of his visits to the Middle East resulted in discovering the pistachio trees. He imported the pistachio nut samples from Syria and planted them in the United States.

This journey of discovering new species, curing plants, and grafting hybrid varieties have all begun because of the passion of a young boy who has been raised on a farm. His journey has begun with creatingTangelos in Eustis, the Sampson Tangelo, Thornton Tangelo, and Orlando Tangelo. The legacy is quite impressive.


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