The Vegetable Sermon

St Giles Cripplegate
David Marsh, June 2017

Thomas Fairchild, the 18thc London gardener and subject of a recent post, was more than just a great London nurseryman and striver for professional unity and strength, he was also highly  inquisitive – or what his contemporaries would have called “curious”. He combined his intellectual curiosity with a strong religious faith and in his will he bequeathed £25 to the churchwardens of St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch for an annual lecture to be given on the Tuesday after Pentecost.  He specified two possible subjects:  “The wonderful works of God in Creation” or “On the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, proved by certain changes of the animal and vegetable parts of Creation,” and this has resulted in the event being sometimes nicknamed the “Vegetable Sermon.”

The Arms of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners from the 1616 Charter

After a somewhat chequered history it is now organized by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, and this year was held at St Giles Cripplegate.

I was honoured to be asked to give this years lecture, which nowadays isn’t quite a Georgian length sermon, but a short address, and I opted to talk about Fairchild’s intellectual curiosity and how it related and perhaps clashed with his religious beliefs.

This post is based on the text of the sermon.

detail from anon portrait of Thomas Fairchild (c.1667-1729)                                                           Department of Plant Sciences, Oxford University             


Your author in the pulpit

My earlier post about Fairchild provides the background for this one, which will concentrate on Fairchild’s experiments with plants, in particular his work with grafting and hybridization.

He was a great plantsman and understood plants and their needs from close observation and by experiment. In the very last paragraph of  The City Gardener  published in 1722 Fairchild refers to these experiments: “for the Improvement of all sorts of Fruits, Flowers, and Trees…were I here to insert an Account of them, would make a Work much larger than I design at this Time; or indeed would it be very proper to joyn with my present subject; but it is likely I may find Time to offer these and some other Experiments to the Publick hereafter, for the further Confirmation of the Generation of Plants, and the Circulation of Sap.”  Sadly he never did but some  were  written up by Richard Bradley, the garden writer and later first professor of botany at Cambridge University.

Nehemiah Grew by Robert White,  1701, National Portrait Gallery

Gardeners have always known that some plants occasionally appear to mutate naturally. Roses, occasionally produce different coloured sports, or like tulips, which flame, to say nothing of naturally occurring hybrids…although no-one in Fairchild’s day knew why .   As a result the 18thc garden was full of  horticultural oddities variously dubbed ‘bastard’, ‘freak’, ‘rogue’, ‘monster’, ‘mongrel’ or  ‘mule’.

These plants were catalogued and described by many naturalists and gardeners, whilst wealthy collectors happily paid large sums for unusual specimens. But at some point, like many others,  Fairchild must have wondered how these differences happened .

The principles of pollination and hybridization and even plant anatomy were only just being understood in Fairchild’s adult lifetime.   The most significant contribution came from the wonderfully named Nehemiah Grew who studied plant physiology using the comparatively new invention of the microscope.  In the 1670s and 1680s he gave a series of papers on the structure and function of the seeds, leaves, roots etc, to the Royal Society.

from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants

from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants

from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants










These were then compiled and published as The Anatomy of Plants in 1682.  During his investigations Grew began to suspect that plants reproduced sexually and guessed that pollen was the male fertilizing agent.

from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants

from Grew’s Anatomy of Plants











A few years later in 1694 the German scientist, Rudolph Camerarius, identified the stamen and pistils as  the  reproductive organs of plants in De Sexu Plantarum Epistola [sadly unillustrated & only available in Latin.]

The sexual structure of plants explained from Richard Bradley’s New Improvemnets of Planting and Gardening, 1717

Fundamental to all of Grew’s work was  his belief that plants and animals, their structure and variety, differences and similarities provided the evidence of God’s wisdom in Creation.  We don’t know if Fairchild actually knew Grew, or even if he might have met him although Grew didn’t die until 1712, so it is possible.  However he would certainly have known of Grew’s work, if not immediately it was published, then certainly later through Richard Bradley, or once he became known to the Royal Society himself.

What we do know is that  sometime in the 1710s, although the results were not published by Bradley until 1717, Fairchild became  the first person known to have tried to put Grew and Camerarius’s theories into practice, when he deliberately tried to hybridize a plant.

Dianthus barbatus L. [as Caryophyllus barbatus hortensis flore pallido] from from
J.W.Weinmann,Phytanthoza iconographia, (1739)

Bradley’s account says that ‘the Carnation  and Sweet William  are in some respects alike; the Farina [pollen] of the one will impregnate the other, and the Seed so enliven’d will produce a Plant different from either, as may now be seen in the Garden of Mr. Thomas Fairchild of Hoxton, a Plant neither Sweet William nor Carnation, but resembling both equally, which was raised from the Seed of a Carnation that had been impregnated by the Farina of the Sweet William‘.

Dianthus caryophyllus L. [as Caryophyllus anglicus flore pallido pleno] from
J.W.Weinmann,Phytanthoza iconographia, (1739)





In other words Fairchild had introduced the pollen of a Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) to the stigma of a carnation (Dianthus caryophyllus) and then he must have held his breath for weeks to see, first of all, if  the seed would actually set and then for it to ripen. After he sowed the seed there was more waiting to see if it would germinate, and when it did… for it to grow.

Fairchild’s Mule
Oxford University Herbaria

One can’t help wondering if Thomas wasn’t just a little disappointed by the result, for what grew  was  a dainty little thing, but one that was nothing particularly exciting – except of course in one vital respect:  it was clearly neither a sweet William nor a carnation.   Further experimentation proved the new plant to be sterile, and so it was christened Fairchild’s Mule, which I suppose is a  better fate than some of the alternatives mentioned above.

It’s important to note that Fairchild’s Mule was NOT a natural occurrence that Fairchild capitalized on. Nor was it a one-off but part of an experiment which Fairchild clearly repeated since two morphologically different herbarium specimens associated with survive, one  in Oxford University and the other at Natural History Museum in London. [Unfortunately I can’t locate a good image of the second specimen.]

Richard Bradley  presciently went on to suggest how the creation of this small plant might eventually transform horticulture. BUT nobody – Fairchild included – seems to done any more to develop the idea of “man-made hybridization” for more than another century. There is an account of the slow development of plant breeding knowledge post-Fairchild in H.F.Roberts Plant Hybridization Before Mendel.

Experiment on plant physiology, from Stephen Hales’s Statical essays: containing vegetable staticks,or,an account of some statical experiments on the sap in vegetables 1727  [image from 1769 edition]

The Mule may be the best known of Fairchild’s experiments with generation but we know Fairchild also conducted many others, and apparently kept meticulous records, now sadly lost.

He worked on proving the circulation of sap,  showing that it did not, as thought by some, stay static or return to the roots during winter, but continued to circulate through the plant.  Amongst the ways he did this was by grafting evergreen oak onto the common oak and noting how the leaves of the evergreen continued to grow long after the leaves of the deciduous had dropped in autumn.  As further proof he suggested cutting a branch of a fig or mulberry in winter and watching how the sap flowed out still.

He also investigated regeneration of old trees by effectively replacing their roots in a process known as inarching. Fairchild  layered a tree and once the layer was well rooted lifted the original tree’s roots out of the ground and to see if would continue to grow on just the new roots. Stephen Hales, a member of the Royal Society, later took this one stage further.

Inarching from Stephen Hales’s Statical essays: containing vegetable staticks,or,an account of some statical experiments on the sap in vegetables&London: 1727  [image from 1769 edition]

Fairchild’s work on all this was taken seriously enough for it to be talked about at the Royal Society in 1724, as part of an ongoing debate about the subject which also included papers by Stephen Hales, later compiled as Statical essays or Vegetable Staticks.

Some grafting experiments from Richard Bradley’s, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, 1723

Fairchild also experimented with grafting and some of  his work was published in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Successful grafting was taken to be the sure sign of a skilled gardener although it was mainly used to propagate fruit varieties,  apple upon apple or cherry upon cherry. But in 1723 Bradley published a catalogue of “new graffings” for the year listing 21 which Fairchild seems to have achieved successfully. Some had ornamental potential such as several sorts of oleander onto each other to have several colours on one plant. Some were more practical oranges onto lemons for example, but a few frankly sound bizarre – such as cedar of Lebanon onto larch or holly onto oak.

While they might seem potty or pointless such experiments are significant because they show Fairchild was trying to define the limits of the scientifically and horticulturally possible. However they also highlight many philosophical challenges  to the contemporary understanding of the natural world.

Grafting from Georgica Curiosa,  by Wolf von Hohberg, 1682

Andrew Marvell, the 17thc poet, and friend of the great John Milton [who is buried next to the pulpit from which I was speaking], summed up these challenges in his poem The Mower against the Garden  which was written during Fairchild’s lifetime. In it Marvell condemns the constant search for novelty, and the selection of unusual forms of plants or exotic imports from the New World, and then goes on:

And yet these rarities might be allowed

To man, that sovereign thing and proud,

Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,

Forbidden mixtures there to see.

No plant now knew the stock from which it came;

He grafts upon the wild the tame:

Marvell is here railing against human intervention in nature of exactly the kinds of ways Fairchild was doing it.

unknown artist; Thomas Fairchild (c.1667-1729); Department of Plant Sciences;

Nowadays Hybridisation is now such an ingrained part of horticultural practice  it’s difficult to envisage a mind-set which doesn’t understand it, or a time when it would be thought strange. In fact in Fairchild’s day the prevailing view was the traditional one accepted even by Isaac Newton and Linnaeus,  that God had created all the plants and animals, they had all been named by Adam and their number was fixed and immutable. So there would have been many who would have seen what Fairchild did as human intervention in a divine prerogative.

Fairchild appears to have been a devout Christian, and a regular parishioner at St Leonard’s and would have certainly have known of these theological misgivings. But he was also a practical and rational man and could see with his own eyes that the traditional view was mistaken. Nevertheless belief is a powerful force. Thomas knew that many would have argued his attempts to hybridize plants, and thus perhaps create a new species, was almost sacrilegious and that  he was literally playing with fire…or rather hell-fire.  Almost certainly  that would have worried him. Is that perhaps why there are no reports of Fairchild trying to hybridize other plants? Did he give up his investigations for that very reason?

unknown artist; Thomas Fairchild (c.1667-1729); Department of Plant Sciences;

It would not be surprising if given his strong faith he did not also have an underlying and literal “fear of God”. So perhaps his £25 bequest – about the annual wages of a garden labourer – can be seen as an expression of his own humility in the face of what he saw as the wonderful works of God’s creation. It might seem like overkill to fund an annual sermon on that theme to make amends for grafting strange combinations of plants or creating a hybrid flower, but maybe it was Fairchild’s way of dealing with the clash between “science” and “faith” and his answer to the same dilemma that faces us even more fiercely today, for example, with genetic modification of plants, people and diseases. That is … how do we decide whether once a thing becomes possible for humans to do, it’s acceptable or becomes inevitable that it is done. Perhaps Fairchild’s legacy is to make us, on this one occasion every year, think about that. Just because we can – do we have to?

If we do reflect on it even just for a minute then I think he would feel his £25 was money well spent.

Well…no-one walked out and not too many fell asleep, and afterwards I was rewarded with the fee of 20 shillings in a nice velvet purse [before being asked very nicely to hand them back!] and then taken off to enjoy the extremely warm hospitality  of the Worshipful Company, over dinner in the nearby Girdler’s Hall.  So thank you Thomas and long may your lecture continue!




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