Sunday, February 12, 2017

1893 - Samuel Wilson's Mole-Tree!

I love the outrageous claims you can find in old seed catalogs!  And when it is accompanied by a great illustration my day is complete.

The mole to the right has been edited by me...Samuel Wilson wasn't that tacky...but he was wasn't afraid to make a definitive statement!

It seems he rubbed a number of reviewers the wrong way, however, with his claims in this 1893 catalog.

The Mole Plant is not only desirable for ornamental purposes, but highly valuable and useful to plant in gardens or lawns infested with moles. Every one knows the trouble and loss caused by these destructive little animals, especially in the vegetable or flower garden, as well as in borders and walks.

The Mole Plant is a sure remedy for this evil. A few plants set out in places infested by moles will drive them away and keep your garden entirely clear of this troublesome pest. 
This fact has been proved in hundreds of cases where moles have been so troublesome as to almost ruin vegetable and garden plants. On our own grounds we made a thorough experiment with this valuable plant he past Summer. We had a row of a dozen planted on a piece of ground which, for years previous, had been so infested with moles as to make it almost impossible to raise a crop of anything we planted. We tried every means by trapping, poisoning, etc, and even hired a man to watch them while making their runs, so as to dig them out with a fork or spade. But all this did not seem to diminish the moles. For every one destroyed, two more came in its place.

We finally gave it up in despair until we accidentally heard of this wonderful Mole Plant. It seemed to work like a charm. The small trees were planted in the Spring and our closest observation could not discover any signs of a mole within sixty feet of these trees the whole season through. On other parts of our grounds the moles were as thick and as destructive as ever. But the grounds where these trees were planted were entirely clear of moles.  
We intend to plant then largely another year, and would recommend our customers who are troubled with moles to try this simple remedy, as it costs but little and will save them much. Half a dozen or a dozen trees would keep an ordinary size garden free from moles and save much vexation and loss.  
The plant is a biennial and easily raised from seeds which must be sown in the Fall. Besides in great value in this way, it is quite an ornamental plant ; grows to the height of two to two and one-half feet, in a perfect tree-like form, with neat and attractive foliage.
Plants, by mall, post-paid, each, 15c: 2 for 25c; 5 for 50c; doz., $1.00.

Below are some responses the ad elicited. The first is the best!   The second fills you in on more detail than you want, which can be a good thing in the long run, plus it also slams this flim-flam style of advertising.

AMONG the “novelties” which we find in the catalogue of Samuel Wilson, of Mechanicsville, Pa., is “The Mole Tree or Mole Plant.”  An illustration shows a round-headed tree loaded with fruit which seem to be about the size of apples. Beside this beautiful little tree lies a dead mole. We assume that he is dead because, first, he is lying on his back with his legs up, and, second, because he lies within a few feet of the deadly tree. 
Mr. Wilson says that a dozen trees (they grow to a height of less than three feet) “would keep an ordinary sized garden free from moles.” He says, “the plant is a biennial and easily raised from seed.” Mr. Wilson, however, fails to allude to the fine fruit borne by the tree, and he further omits to mention its botanical name or to intimate in any way to what order it belongs.
The Rural New-Yorker 1893

THE MOLE-PLANT.— Euphorbia Lathyris.

The horticultural community was interested last spring in the announcement of Samuel Wilson, of Mechanicsville, Penn., that he had a plant which will drive moles from the garden. This plant, although said to be biennial, was called the Mole-Tree, and the account was verified by the picture, which shows a diminutive tree beneath which lies the corpse of a mole.

Nothing is said by the introducer about the origin, nativity or botanical affinities of the plant. We were able to secure but one plant of the Mole-Tree, and we were so choice of it that it has been grown in the greenhouse. It turns out to be an interesting old garden plant, which has a continuous history of at least three hundred years, and which was known as a medicinal plant to Galen in the second century. It is the Caper Spurge, Euphorbia Lathyris. The name Spurge is applied to many related plants, in reference to their purgative qualities, and this particular species is called Caper Spurge from the fact that the little seed-like fruits are sometimes used as a substitute for capers. The plant is known chiefly as a household medicine, although it is used in materia medica and is figured by Millspaugh in his recent work upon American Medicinal Plants. Its use as a food plant seems, fortunately, to have ceased. Johnson, in Sowerby's Useful Plants of Great Britain, 1862, speaks of this use of it as follows: “The three-celled capsules are about the size of a large caper, and are often used as a substitute for that condiment, but are extremely acrid, and not fit to eat till they have been long macerated in salt and water and afterwards in vinegar ; indeed it may be doubted whether they are wholesome even in that state.”

This plant is a native of Europe, but it has long been an inhabitant of old gardens in this country, and it has run wild in some of the eastern states. Its use as a mole repeller is not recent. 

Pursh, in writing of the plant in 1814, in his Flora of North America, says that 
“It is generally known in America by the name of Mole-plant, it being supposed that no moles disturb the ground where this plant grows.” 
Darlington makes a similar statement in Flora Cestrica, 1837 :
 “This foreigner has become naturalized about many gardens,— having been introduced under a notion that it protected them from the incursions of moles.” 
In later botanies it is frequently called Moleplant.

I do not know if there is any foundation for these repeated statements that the Caper Spurge is objectionable to moles, but the fact that the notion is old and widespread raises a presumption that the plant may possess such attributes. The statement occurs only in American works, so far as I know. It would be interesting to know the experiences of those who have grown the plant for a number of years, for the subject is worth investigation.  

We cannot too strongly deprecate the practice of introducing plants to the public without giving purchasers definite knowledge of their history and nature, and without having detailed proof that the plants possess the virtues which are claimed for them. It would have been better in the present example, no doubt, to have submitted the plant to a botanist before introducing it, in order that its proper name and history might have been determined; and if the public is at all inclined to buy a moleplant it would have been persuaded much more by the long tradition of its virtues than by any consequential statement of its value.

The Caper Spurge is apparently biennial, although Boissier, a celebrated monographer of the euphorbias, calls it annual. The plant is very unlike in its early and flowering stages. Until it begins to branch and flower, the leaves are long linear-lanceolate, opposite, and arranged in four perfect rows down the thick, smooth stem. As this stage of the plant is rarely illustrated or described, I have introduced here a photograph of our Mole-plant as it appeared eight months after its receipt from Mr. Wilson. It was placed horizontally and an end view was taken in order to show the serial arrangement of leaves. The plant is exceedingly curious and interesting, and we shall grow it in our greenhouses as an ornamental subject. Few plants have a more novel or striking appearance. In its second or flowering stage, the leaves are ovate and shorter. 

Mr. Wilson writes me that he knew this plant in old gardens more than fifty years ago, where it had a reputation for expelling moles, but he lost sight of it until a short time since, when he again met with the plant. It was then propagated and introduced to the public.

1894 - Annual Report of the Agricultural Experiment Station, Volume 6