Fruit Culture, and the USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection

My recent work has been inspired by the fascinating discovery of collection of almost 7,500 technical illustrations of fruits and nuts, commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture at the turn of the 20th century.

Watercolor of malus domestica (apples) painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore © U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

Watercolor of malus domestica (apples) painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore © U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to document the thousands of fruits and nuts that were being grown, developed, discovered, and cultivated throughout the United States. They founded the USDA Division of Pomology in 1886 to do just that.

Pomology being the science of growing fruit, and science needs to be documented.

When we think about documenting or studying plants, we think of spreadsheets and notes and most importantly photographs. Detailed and accurate photography.

But what about in the late 1800s, when photography as a means of documentation wasn't common, and color photography was still decades off?

Watercolor of malus domestica (apples) painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore © U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

Watercolor of malus domestica (apples) painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore © U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

Prior to photography as documentation there were illustrations and watercolors. As technical as they are beautiful, throughout the 19th century and the beginning part of the 20th century, these watercolors and illustrations documented just about anything scientists or researchers needed pictorial documentation of. Illustrators illustrated plants, animals, fruits, nuts, flowers, fungi, and everything in-between. These pictures were drawn to scale, and if the object was small enough (like a fruit or a flower) sometimes at actual size. Size, shape, color, spots, splotches, insides, outsides, and decomposition were all portrayed with impressive technical accuracy.

The turn of the 20th century, was a time of great change in the world of agriculture, the scale of fruit cultivation was growing exponentially, and new strands of fruits and nuts were being discovered, cultivated, bred, and grown. The mission of the USDA's documentation project was to document the "new fruit and nut varieties, and specimens introduced by USDA plant explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

That desire to document the new discoveries in agriculture meant that between 1886 and 1942, artists at the United States Department of Agriculture, Division of Pomology created almost 7,500 watercolors of a staggering number of fruits and nuts. The collection includes over 3,000 variations of apples, most of which neither you nor I have ever heard of, and that aren't commonly grown anymore.

Both scrumptiously beautiful, and technically accurate these watercolors sparked my imagination, and reminded me that, not only do we all have a favorite fruit, but that those fruits also come with touching memories and stories. These watercolors seem to tap into a deep cultural inheritance around fruit and food. They're beautiful and detailed, striking in the complexity of their simplicity and if you stare at them long enough, you might just convince yourself you could pluck the plum right off the page.

Watercolor of prunus domestica (plums) painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore © U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

Watercolor of prunus domestica (plums) painted by Deborah Griscom Passmore © U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705