Excerpts from Part III, pp.106-108 and from Part II, p.76

The first excerpt comprises 3 paragraphs from the start of Part III of the book, from “Much of the luxuriance and size of timber …” to “We say that the rural economist…”. Here, in an echo of Wallace’s famous essay title “On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type”, Matthew considers the “almost unlimited” extent to which forms within “what is called species” can vary, and the implications that has for both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ selective breeding of trees. Matthew argues that the latter are “so much inferior to those of Nature’s own rearing, where only the stronger, more hardy, soil-suited varieties can struggle forward to maturity and reproduction”. The relevant sections in this excerpt are given the titles “Infinite variety existing in what is called species” and “A principle of selection existing in nature of the strongest varieties for reproduction” in the book’s Contents.

Much of the luxuriance and size of timber depending upon the particular variety of the species, upon the treatment of the seed before sowing, and upon the treatment of the young plant, and as this fundamental subject is neither much attended to nor generally understood, we shall take it up ab initio.

The consequences are now being developed of our deplorable ignorance of, or inattention to, one of the most evident traits of natural history, that vegetables as well as animals are generally liable to an almost unlimited diversification, regulated by climate, soil, nourishment, and new commixture of already formed varieties. In those with which man is most intimate, and where his agency in throwing them from their natural locality and dispositions has brought out this power of diversification in stronger shades, it has been forced upon his notice, as in man himself, in the dog, horse, cow, sheep, poultry—in the Apple, Pear, Plum, Gooseberry, Potato, Pea, which sport in infinite varieties, differing considerably in size, colour, taste, firmness of texture, period of growth, almost in every recognisable quality. In all these kinds man is influential in preventing deterioration, by careful selection of the largest or most valuable as breeders; but in timber trees the opposite course has been pursued. The large growing varieties being so long of coming to produce seed, that many plantations are cut down before they reach this maturity, the small growing and weakly varieties, known by early and extreme seeding, have been continually selected as reproductive stock, from the ease and conveniency with which their seed could be procured; and the husks of several kinds of these invariably kiln-dried, in order that the seeds might be the more easily extracted. May we, then, wonder that our plantations are occupied by a sickly short-lived puny race, incapable of supporting existence in situations where their own kind had formerly flourished—particularly evinced in the genus Pinus, more particularly in the species Scots Fir; so much inferior to those of Nature’s own rearing, where only the stronger, more hardy, soil-suited varieties can struggle forward to maturity and reproduction?

We say that the rural economist should pay as much regard to the breed or particular variety of his forest trees, as he does to that of his live stock of horses, cows, and sheep. That nurserymen should attest the variety of their timber plants, sowing no seeds but those gathered from the largest, most healthy, and luxuriant growing trees, abstaining from the seed of the prematurely productive, and also from that of the very aged and over-mature; as they, from animal analogy, may be expected to give an infirm progeny, subject to premature decay.


The above ideas on “infinite variety in existing in what is called species” are even more succinctly expressed by Matthew in the following footnote from Part II, p.76:

Our common larch, like almost every other kind of tree, consists of numberless varieties, which differ considerably in quickness of growth, ultimate size, and value of timber. This subject has been much neglected. We are, however, on the eve of great improvements in arboriculture; the qualities and habits of varieties are just beginning to be studied. It is also found that the uniformity in each kind of wild growing plants called species, may be broken down by art or culture, and that when once a breach is made, there is almost no limit to disorder; the mele that ensues being nearly incapable of reduction.