In the middle of the nineteenth century, a tiny insect arrived in Europe, uninvited and unnoticed, transported alongside shipments of American grape vines from the eastern United States. Soon it was to receive a name: Phylloxera vastatrix. It devastated a huge proportion of the world’s vineyards in the decades to follow, but its first sightings were not in the great vineyard nations, but in a country of walled gardens, country estates and glasshouses.
The Intruder in the Greenhouse
The first encounter with Phylloxera outside America was in England in 1863, in a greenhouse in the London suburb of Hammersmith.
This much we knew already – six years later, in 1869, the famous Oxford entomologist Professor John Westwood published an account of the Hammersmith discovery (1). This small footnote to wine history was the starting point for my investigation, for research that took me deep into un-catalogued Victorian archives, unearthing new pieces of evidence from the Westwood archive, following the trail of two scientists and the spread of a global vine pest. Here is that story, with images never before published, and exchanges of correspondence previously unseen, or thus far unrecognised as part of the phylloxera story.
On June 20th 1863, a small notice appeared in the pages of the Gardeners’ Chronicle. It raised little alarm at the time, but it marked the first recognition of the potential for devastation that was to follow in the vineyards of Europe and around the world.
“Vine leaf excrescences: CDH – Many thanks for the fresh specimens of vine leaves which have been received. It is now clear that the curious excrescences are the work of an insect [...] We fear that your vines must suffer seriously.” (2)
Through the second half of the nineteenth century, The Gardeners’ Chronicle was a weekly magazine that outsold many newspapers of the time, and was read by professional gardeners and eminent scientists alike. Charles Darwin, amongst others, used to write regular letters, asking for information from readers on subjects of his current research.
Each week, in the ‘Notices to Correspondents’ column, the Gardeners’ Chronicle expert consultants – leading scientists of their day – would respond to questions, and comment on the varied plant samples sent in by their readers, who often identified themselves just by their initials. Professional gardeners were wary of advertising problems in their own gardens. In this case, the discoverer of the Hammersmith phylloxera is identified merely as ‘CDH’.
The notice is signed ‘MJB’, the initials of the Reverend Miles Joseph Berkeley, the Chronicle’s eminent consultant on mycology (the study of funguses) and plant pathology – the man who for many years analysed and reported on all matters of plant disease on behalf of the magazine.
In the summer of 1863, once Berkeley saw that the vine leaves sent by ‘CDH’ of Hammersmith were affected by as yet unknown insects, it was an easy decision to pass on the samples to his eminent colleague, John Obadiah Westwood, Oxford University’s first Professor of Zoology, and insect specialist for the Gardeners’ Chronicle. Westwood’s extensive collection of insect samples, drawings and documents remains in Oxford, largely as it was when he died, and shows he had already wrestled with the problems of ‘economic
entomology’ – the study of insect pests affecting some of the world’s most valuable crops. He had already helped out the silk industry, coffee growers, even wheat and cotton farmers, at a time when the plantations of Empire were providing untold wealth for the British purse.
Up in the arched wooden roof space of Oxford’s Natural History Museum is a long and little visited room, lined with rows of teak cabinets. Daylight leaks in through rows of tall leaded windows. The wooden cabinets are filled with insect specimens, pinned, labelled and dated, many of them the first recorded specimens of their kind, and largely untouched since they were collected by Professor Westwood, through the middle years of the nineteenth century.
Inside one of the glass-topped drawers is a cluster of dried vine leaves, held in place by a single pin, left exactly as Westwood had arranged them; beside them a coil of young vine roots. Each specimen is infested with what was then an unknown species: small relics of phylloxera from the 1860s, of the tiny insect that soon worked its way into the vineyards of the world, devastating the wine industry, and the livelihoods of those that depended on it.
Next door, in the Natural History Museum’s library, delving deep into the dozens of boxes of Westwood’s paper archive of notes and correspondence, I unearthed a single sheet of paper that links us directly with that Hammersmith vine. It is Westwood’s own drawing of that first recorded sighting of phylloxera, showing the unmistakeable outline of the tiny insect, and Westwood’s handwritten text that concludes:
“sent to MJ Berkeley by CDH of Hammersmith”
A fashion for vines
Hammersmith was a fashionable suburb of London at the time, far enough from the smog of the city, and with enough space for gentlefolk to live in large houses, with the latest greenhouses and vineries to show off their wealth. Only two miles further up the Thames, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) had its gardens in Chiswick, with a glasshouse that was at the time the largest vinery in England (4), boasting dozens of species from Europe and America. Hammersmith was a place filled with important plant nurseries in the 19th century, so it was no surprise that the infected vine sample should have come from here. I have tried to decode the identity of ‘CDH’ by checking all manner of address lists, directories and census returns for the area but to no avail. We may never know exactly the address where this first infestation was discovered, but we can reasonably deduce where the vine might have been bought. One of the most famous nurseries of its day, the Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith, was importing exotic new species from the USA and the Far East, and slaking a new thirst for novelty in the gardens of the rich and fashion-conscious in London and across Europe. It had been the first to sell plants propagated from seed brought back from Australia by Captain Cook, and the first to sell fuschias, all items of extraordinary rarity when they first appeared (5). Many of the vines in the RHS Chiswick vinery were themselves bought from the Vineyard Nursery (6), which as the name suggests, had once been a wine-producing vineyard before becoming a commercial nursery. By a quirk of historical coincidence, the site of the Vineyard Nursery was later to become the Olympia Exhibition Centre, the venue which for many years housed the annual London Wine Trade Fair.
The root of the problem
For Westwood, to find only a leaf affected by the insect was not enough in 1863 to understand the complex life cycle of phylloxera. We now know that phylloxera (with its correct modern name of Dactylasphaera vitifoliae) is a native of the eastern USA. On American vines, the insect can usually be seen infesting the leaves, but avoids the roots, while on the European vine, Vitis vinifera, the bug does the greatest damage and attacks the roots. It is fair to assume that the Hammersmith leaf was from a native American vine.
Scientists had to wait four more years before the next significant sample was submitted. This time it was not the leaves but the roots that were affected, and the sample came from Cheshire. From Westwood’s own archive, we now know exactly from where, and it is those very roots that are now preserved in the teak cabinets in Oxford. The roots are from Ashfield Hall, a country house on the Wirral, overlooking the Don Estuary and the hills of North Wales, with a selection of greenhouses tucked inside its walled garden. As was the fashion of the time, they produced abundant fruit, including lush bunches of grapes for the house guests. Today, the outline of the greenhouse is still visible against the intact brick walls of the garden.
In the summer of 1867, Jacob Huddart, the farm bailiff and gardener to the Hall, found his vines getting weaker, and in October sent samples of the roots to the Gardeners’ Chronicle, covered with strange nodules. He was a regular correspondent to the magazine. Westwood soon saw the root samples contained insects similar to those on the Hammersmith leaf.
Conflict and conclusions
The professor understood it was serious, but in 1867 he failed to make the connection with a growing problem already being reported in the vineyards of France. Vines there were starting to weaken and die for no apparent reason, but it would be another year before French researchers found the same insects living on the roots of their plants (7).
As Westwood considered the specimens from his Oxford office, Reverend Berkeley continued to concern himself with the phenomenon too. Berkeley appears the more practically engaged of the pair, finding and sending further samples of infected vines to Westwood from vineries in England and Ireland. Berkeley demonstrates a growing frustration as the situation in France deteriorates rapidly, surely dismayed by the inability to capitalise on that early exposure to the insect when they first held a sample so many years before.
Berkeley was a man who was already well known for his help with vine problems, and who fully understood the economic and social ruin that plant disease can cause. He was a formidable plant pathologist – in fact the man who developed this branch of botany into a science (3). In the 1840s, his expertise was brought to bear on another vine disease, powdery mildew, which had hit Europe. Like phylloxera, it was unknowingly imported from the USA, and devastated vines across the continent. It was Berkeley who identified the cause of the disease as a fungus he called Oidium tuckeri, named in honour of a gardener from Margate he worked with, who showed that the fungus could be successfully controlled by spraying a mixture of copper sulphate, lime and water onto the vine leaves – better known to vineyard managers today as Bordeaux mixture.
His intervention saved vineyards and livelihoods across the continent at a time when about one third of France’s adult population was involved in some way in the sale or production of wine.
Just a few years before that, at the height of the devastating Potato Famine, it was also Berkeley who identified the fungus which was the cause of potato blight. At the time, other eminent scientists believed the mould in the potatoes was a secondary factor – an opportunistic infection taking advantage of tubers weakened by excessively wet weather. This attitude was to see its echo years later. Even when phylloxera was seen infesting the weakened vines of France, many scientists still argued that the insects were not themselves the cause, but merely attracted by the weakness of the plants.
In the case of his struggle with phylloxera, his frustration at the lack of a workable remedy is coupled with a rising anger at a perceived disengagement on the part of Professor Westwood. Letters from Berkeley to Westwood, rarely seen before, backed up by Berkeley’s writings in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, confirm the frustration that was felt.
On October 24th, 1868, just months after the French authorities discovered phylloxera on the roots of their vines, Berkeley writes in the editorial pages of the Chronicle that it is highly likely that this is the same insect as they had earlier found. He adds, in an implicit rebuke to Westwood for apparently failing to examine the fresh specimens Berkeley had sent: “We have waited with some impatience for perfect details as to its characters, and in their absence hope that next summer we shall be able to compare them with specimens of the root insect.”
In the same week, Berkeley penned an angry letter to the Editor of the Gardener’s Chronicle. It was immediately forwarded to Professor Westwood, no doubt to Berkeley’s surprise, and now sits in the archive of Westwood’s correspondence in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Maxwell T Masters, the Chronicle’s Editor, says in a covering letter: “I enclose a letter from Berkeley – you will see that it refers to the vine gall insect”.
Berkeley’s anger is clear in the letter: “I have a supply of specimens in spirits. Would it not be well for you to write to Westwood and ask him to publish the characters of the insect of the vine gall, and if you hear from him that he did not take a note of them, I will endeavour to get a fresh supply from Ireland if it is not too late”.
Berkeley goes on to allude to Westwood’s other specialism – an interest in early Christian carvings and illuminated manuscripts, adding: “It is a great pity that he did nothing about it at the time, but he is immersed in archaeology to the neglect of entomology.”
We do not have Westwood’s response but, in the months that follow, in the pages of the Gardeners’ Chronicle, Westwood writes some extensive articles chronicling the evolution of their experience with the samples of diseased vines. In the knowledge of Berkeley’s angry position, much of this writing reads like a defence of his professional credentials on the matter, arguing why the diverse set of samples of leaf and root infestation could not easily be reconciled into a description of the life cycle of one species. Westwood also reminds us of “the various erroneous opinions which had been formed as to its origin” (1) from experts in the vineyards of France.
Could Westwood and Berkeley have solved the phylloxera problem for the world if Westwood had applied himself more assiduously, in Berkeley’s eyes? Would a full understanding of the life cycle of the insect have brought a quicker resolution to this global problem? It may well have brought quicker focus to the cause of the ‘Great Wine Blight’, but perhaps the quieter world of the English greenhouse did not imbue the same sense of urgency as the demands of the commercial vineyard.
After all, greenhouse gardeners with a few vines could uproot their plants, disinfect them and sometimes start again, but in France, in Italy, in Australia, the bug was out in the open. Not even the most assiduous vineyard manager could hope to look after their vines in the way that might limit the march of the phylloxera.
All this took place just a few years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, and the emergence of the phylloxera crisis brought some tough lessons for Victorian science. Mastery of the natural world didn’t look so easy – classifying nature and collecting specimens could not solve these problems alone.
After years of searching, and the offer of enormous prizes, and attempts at some preposterous solutions, measures were eventually discovered in France that could stem the phylloxera problem, but there was never a cure. The solution was to graft European vines onto the roots of American native vines – which the American phylloxera do not choose to eat.
But the insect is still there. Even today, parts of Australia impose quarantine restrictions on vines just to halt its march, and even England, the land of the greenhouse, is not immune. In 2002, at Britain’s largest ever greenhouse, the Eden Project, rising from a former quarry in Cornwall, an outbreak of phylloxera was reported in a display of un-grafted vines in their temperate greenhouse. Almost a century and a half after its first discovery, there is still no cure for ‘The Great Wine Blight’.
Notes and Sources
(1) Westwood, J.O., ‘New Vine Diseases’, Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, January 30th 1869, p. 109, London.
(2) Rev. M.J. Berkeley, ‘Notices to Correspondents’. Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, June 20th 1863, p. 584, London.
(3) ‘It is not too much to pronounce Berkeley as the originator and founder of Plant Pathology’: George Massee, ‘Miles Joseph Berkeley 1803-1899’, Makers of British Botany, ed. FW Oliver, p. 231, London 1913
(4) ‘probably the largest structure devoted to the cultivation of grapes in existence’: Archibald Barron, ‘Vines and Vine Culture’, p.125, London 1883
(5) Eleanor Joan Willson, ‘James Lee and the Vineyard Nursery, Hammersmith’, Hammersmith Local History Group, 1961
(6) Proceedings of the Royal Horticultural Society, Volume 1, 1861, p. 105
(7) Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Sciences, 1868, Vol. LXVII, p. 593