Many Americans might be surprised to learn that some of their favorite foods are not native to North America, but were introduced a hundred years ago by one devoted group of explorers. Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters, which we are publishing this week, tells the little-known story of the botanical expeditions that revolutionized the American dinner table.

Son-in-law to Alexander Graham Bell and brother-in-law to National Geographic editor Gilbert Grosvenor, David Fairchild (1869–1954) was likewise an influential figure in the flurry of scientific discovery and invention which characterized the late nineteenth century. His discoveries were motivated by his idealistic belief in the free exchange of plants among people around the globe. Amanda Harris, former editor and reporter for Newsday, recounts the exploits of Fairchild and his followers in Fruits of Eden.

“Harris brings to life the many unsung adventurers who tramped to the ends of the earth in search of useful plants,” says Susan Freinkel, author of American Chestnut. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fairchild and his fellow botanists traveled to Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe to bring back foreign cultivars. Their findings provided diversity of crops for farmers across the country and transformed what Americans eat.

Wilson Popenoe on the equator in Malchingui, Ecuador, in 1921. Photo courtesy of Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
Wilson Popenoe, one of Fairchild’s explorers, on the equator in Malchingui, Ecuador, in 1921. Photo courtesy of Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

Mangoes, avocados, honeydew melons, soybeans, durum wheat, dates, Meyer lemons, and figs are among the once-exotic foods that Fairchild’s program brought from faraway locales. “If you have ever wondered how navel oranges and other such foods came to be grown in America, here’s the answer,” says Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics. “Fruits of Eden is a welcome history of these little-known plant experts who succeeded in improving the diversity and deliciousness of our daily fare.”

Fairchild eventually became tangled in controversies emerging at the dawn of globalization—immigration policy, eugenics, concerns over invasive species, and the struggle between science and commerce. “The turn of the twentieth century was fascinating because everything changed as Americans opened their eyes to the rest of the world,” says author Amanda Harris. Though David Fairchild’s program was shut down by his adversaries, the foods he introduced to the country are now commonplace in today’s kitchens.

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