Lee Reich is indisputably the guy to go to for information on fruit-growing. His numerous books on such topics as growing fruit naturally and growing uncommon fruits are practical how-to guides backed by academic credentials and years of in-the-field experience. And his 30-plus years of writing newspaper columns about horticultural matters have introduced him to a local and a national readership.
So when the people at Abbeville Press decided to add a book about fruit to their Tiny Folio™ series last year, it’s no surprise they approached Reich to write it. Having just completed his latest book at the time, he wasn’t really planning on starting something else so soon. But this one resonated with him and he felt connected to the project for a number of reasons; this one was meant for him, he says.
The newly published Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collectionby Lee Reich (Abbeville Press, 2022) is a fusion of art, science and history in a 4.4” x 4.7” hardcover volume of 288 pages. The pocket-sized folio is like a miniature coffee table book, a celebration of fruit-growing in an earlier America with a wealth of historical context and scientific information provided by Reich. The first half of the book is devoted to a range of apple varieties, many with unfamiliar and quaint names; most of these cultivars now lost to time. Subsequent chapters cover pears and other pomes, stone fruits, citrus, berries and miscellaneous fruits such as avocados, pomegranates, persimmons and nuts.
The vintage watercolor illustrations are beautiful, satisfying to peruse in the way that good botanical prints are; that blend of clarity and reality softened and given soul by the artist’s hand. Reich selected 250 illustrations for the book from more than 7,500 commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) between 1886 and 1942.
The illustrations were created for educational and promotional purposes. As Reich explains, fruit-growing in early America was largely carried out by individuals to either feed livestock or ferment into beverages until around the mid-19th century, when Americans became interested in growing fruit for human consumption. To do that commercially required the development of a fruit-growing industry with communication between growers, so Congress established the USDA’s Division of Pomology in 1886.
With the aim to promote fruit-growing and to ensure consistency across varieties, artists were hired to create watercolor illustrations of the different cultivars, which in printed form were distributed to farmers and gardeners through USDA pamphlets and publications. Fruit samples for the artists to illustrate were sent in by growers from all over the country, from backyard amateurs to professional nurserymen.
The majority of the watercolors were done between 1894 and 1916. Some 21 artists were employed in total, but most of the illustrations were created by just eight artists, six of whom were women. Three of those women – Deborah Griscom Passmore, Amanda Almira Newton and Mary Daisy Arnold – did approximately half of the paintings. Among the male illustrators, the work of Royal Charles Steadman stands out.
The original botanical illustrations are now housed in the USDA’s Rare and Special Collections within the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, which brings us back to why Lee Reich felt such an affinity to the material when approached to do this book.
From 1979 to 1981, Reich did his doctorate research at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, which is located directly across the street from the agricultural library. While he didn’t see these particular watercolors at that time, he says, he was familiar with books of other botanical illustrations and he remembers visiting the library often, where they kept wax replicas of fruit the USDA had also commissioned. “When I’d walk into the research lab, the replicas were in a case off to the right; they looked so real you’d want to take a bite of them.”
While earning his PhD in horticulture, Reich worked at the USDA Fruit Laboratory and later as a research associate for Cornell University before switching gears to devote his time to writing, lecturing and consulting. He grows fruits, vegetables and nuts on his New Paltz “farmden” – more than a garden, less than a farm – with an emphasis on unusual varieties and experimental growing.
In discussing the disappearance of many of the old apple varieties featured in Fruit, Reich says thatsome are actually still available to grow – he grows old varieties himself – they’re just not commercially viable. “Unfortunately, I think fruit today is a commodity. It’s mostly about how it looks and how it ships, and it has to store well. And I think people are missing out on some really good-tasting fruits.”
Reich notes that he’s not a fan of the typical apples available in supermarkets today. “They all taste the same. They’re very crisp and they’re sweet with maybe a hint of flavor, whereas if you taste some of these old varieties, the flavor is really quite distinctive.”
Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collectionis available on Reich’s website along with access to his blog and his previous books. Visit the farmden at http://www.leereich.com.