More Great Thoughts – George Darrow’s work with plants

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(Host) As VPR’s occasional exploration of the Great Thoughts of Vermont continues, commentator Vern Grubinger reflects on the practical methods and theories developed by plant breeder extraordinaire – George Darrow.

(Grubinger) Small fruits are delicacies, and they don’t grow on trees. That may not sound like a revolutionary concept, but in the early 1900’s, very little was known about growing strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. The work of one Vermonter by the name of George M. Darrow greatly increased the attention paid to these crops, and it was his research that laid the groundwork for their commercial success today.

Darrow was born in Springfield, Vermont, in 1889. He came to be considered America’s foremost authority on small fruits, and because of his accomplishments he is recognized as one of the giants of horticultural science.

After earning degrees at Middlebury and Cornell, Darrow joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he worked for 46 years.

He was a prolific and talented plant breeder, with a keen understanding of the characteristics that were needed to make a variety good to eat, AND good to grow. He developed dozens of superior small fruit varieties, many of which set the standard for excellence in their species and were widely used by other breeders as parents for new varieties. Over half a century later, some of his varieties are still in commercial production. In fact, Darrow’s Bluecrop is still the most widely planted blueberry variety in the world.

Darrow also conducted ground-breaking research. His studies of photoperiod effects on strawberries led to the discovery that flowers are initiated on most varieties only under medium or short daylengths.

His grasp of all aspects of fruit production, from botany and genetics to cultural practices and climactic influences was remarkable, and he was able to communicate these concepts clearly and widely. He authored more than two hundred publications, including some of the earliest farmer bulletins on small fruit production.

Darrow was also an effective leader, establishing partnerships between federal and state agencies, and growers. He organized teams to study red steele disease and viruses in strawberries.

A practical man, Darrow was among the first to offer pick-your-own strawberries. After his retirement in 1957 he began breeding daylilies. He introduced fifty-nine new varieties, all registered with the American Hemerocallis Society, and all named with the prefix Olallie, which was the name of his farm in Maryland.

As Darrow’s health began to fail, the family moved the daylily collection back to their farm in southern Vermont, where they continue to breed, and sell, hundreds of daylily varieties. South Newfane’s Olallie Daylily Gardens in full bloom is a sight to behold.

George Darrow’s keen intellect, considerable energy, and broad horticultural skills allowed him to define and inspire the study of small fruit in the twentieth century. And he translated those skills into action, benefitting farmers and consumers of small fruit for generations to come.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the Director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the vegetable and berry specialist for UVM Extension. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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