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Plant Focus

Quercus crassipes acorns with inrolled cupule margin
One of the more well-known Mexican oaks in cultivation.

David Fairchild's 1944 Expedition to Mesoamerica: Encounters with Quercus skinneri

Coral Burgos-Soler,1 Francisco Garin,2 Roderick Cameron,3 Miguel A. Pérez Farrera,4 and Javier Francisco-Ortega5,6,7,8

David Fairchild (1869–1954) was one of the most famous agricultural explorers of the USA. Founder and first director (1897–1898) of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), he is also considered one of the pioneers of economic botany as a discipline. At the time of his retirement (1935) he was already famous not only among botanists and agriculturists but also among the general public. During his career he wrote hundreds of popular and research articles and six popular books that demonstrated his interest in outreaching and showcasing agriculture research. He also traveled all over the world collecting plant material for the breeding stocks of USDA. These included landraces of cultivated plants and species with local ethnobotanical use.

Upon his retirement he spent several months of the year living in his family home in Miami. The house was known as The Kampong (village in Malay) and today is part of the network of gardens that are owned and operated by the National Tropical Botanic Garden. During his stays in Miami, Fairchild became a central figure in the development of several agricultural research, botanical, environmental conservation, and gardening initiatives. Because of his international and national reputation as a botanist and agriculturist, in 1938 a group of influential Miami citizens led by accounting scholar and businessman Robert Montgomery (1872–1953) created the first major botanic garden of Miami. It was named after him and currently it is known as Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FTBG). David Fairchild joined this garden as President Emeritus, and during his tenure he undertook four plant hunting expeditions to destinations including Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Quercus skinneri acorn
A Quercus skinneri acorn collected by Francisco Garin in Guatemala, photographed at Iturraran Botanical Garden

This contribution focuses on the third of these expeditions, which included Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico (Yucatán), and it took place between September and December 1944. The trip was the result of an invitation that David Fairchild received to deliver the inauguration speech of the Escuela Agrícola Panamericana, Zamorano, Honduras, a college created by the United Fruit Company to train horticulturists and agronomists from the Americas. Wilson Popenoe, worldwide authority in tropical fruit crops and leading horticulturist of this company, was Fairchild's host. He was joined by his wife Marian Fairchild (1880–1962) and son Alexander Graham B. Fairchild (1906–1994), who was by then a famous tropical entomologist working in Panama. From Fairchild’s report delivered to FTBG we know that he wanted this voyage to be an opportunity to collect wild avocados and annonas. However, during the trip he also was fascinated with Quercus skinneri, a unique oak found in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador. It is characterized by having large acorns and strikingly red new leaves. Acorns of this size (up to 5 cm wide by 5 cm high) are unusual: only a handful of species bear seed of similar size, including the Mesoamerican Q. insignis, the North American Q. macrocarpa, and the Asian Q. lamellosa.

David Fairchild with Quercus skinneri acorns
Alexander Graham B. Fairchild with the "full peck" of Quercus skinneri acorns © Archives and Library of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Fairchild collected plant material of many other species, but due to unknown reasons none of this material seemed to reach the living collections of FTBG. This expedition took place during the Second World War and perhaps this impacted this garden's horticultural activities. Currently FTBG does not have any specimens of Q. skinneri, and we are not aware of any botanic garden in South Florida that has this species.

Acorns and leaves
The "great serrated leaves over a foot long and 3 inches wide" reminded Fairchild of the leaves of the chestnut (Castanea sp.) © Archives and Library of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden  

During this expedition eleven photos of Quercus skinneri were taken and one seed collection was made in the Cobán area in central Guatemala. A selection of these photos is presented in this contribution. In February 1945, shortly after his return from this trip, Fairchild wrote an expedition report that was part of the Seventh Annual Proceedings of FTBG. The six-page report devoted a few paragraphs to Q. skinneri. From this text, we learned that before this expedition David Fairchild had heard of this species, which was said to have acorns as large as those of Q. insignis. He had already seen Q. insignis acorns because he had received some while working for the USDA. He was so impressed by their size that he published a photograph of them in the Journal of Heredity in 1914, illustrating a note that discussed the possibility of using the species to produce acorns for livestock food.

Three ladies encircling a Quercus skinneri trunk
"...it took three ladies of the part to span the trunks" of the Quercus skinneri at Finca Chimax (though it appears to be only two and a half ladies!) © Archives and Library of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

During the 1944 expedition he encountered Q. skinneri in a single site near a ranch known as Finca Chimax in Cobán. The trees were huge, and he reported that there “were twenty or more superb oaks 50 or more feet high and so large around that it took three of the ladies of the party to span the trunks.” He was impressed by their beauty, magnificence, and the huge size of their acorns. These were much bigger than those he was familiar with from his homeland in Michigan, and their trunks were slenderer than those of the white oaks he knew well from Maryland. He regretted to inform the FTBG community that the seed are not edible “like the “Edible Acorns” (Lithocarpus cornea [sic]).” Fairchild’s report indicated that seeds were sent to the botanic garden of the United Fruit Company in Lancetilla (Honduras) and to the germplasm repositories at FTBG and the USDA’s Plant Introduction Station (now the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens) in Savannah, Georgia. When his report was published, seedlings of this oak were already growing in these two USA sites. However, it seems that these plants did not reach their living collections; interestingly, Fairchild’s accounts already stated that “Whether these oaks will grow well here or not I do not know for they are mountain trees.”

Page 5 of the FTBG report
The section of David Fairchild's expedition report that recounts his encounter with Quercus skinneri (Seventh Annual Proceedings of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden) © Archives and Library of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
(click on the image to enlarge in a new window)

The species is rare in cultivation. It can be found in the Botanic Garden of Universidad de San Carlos, Guatemala (CECON-USAC). However, it has proved to be not hardy in colder temperate gardens, and plants at Chevithorne Barton and Caerhays Garden in the UK have died (James MacEwen, Allen Coombes, pers. comm.). It is growing well, however, in Iturraran Botanical Garden in northeastern Spain, from seed collected by Francisco Garin at Lago Atitlán, Guatemala in 2009; two specimens grow in the garden, the larger reaching about 10 m tall in 2021, despite having lost 3 m due to heavy snow three years earlier. The plants at Iturraran withstood temperatures of -6ºC but lost many leaves and some branches got frosted. A plant from this collection failed at Penrice Castle in southern Wales, UK. Plants have not survived at Arboretum des Pouyouleix in central France and at Arboretum de Chocha in southwestern France, not far from Iturraran. A specimen at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, however, is doing well, grown from seed collected in southern Oaxaca in 2009 and planted in 2015; a plant from the same collection, on the other hand, failed at Tregrehan Gardens, Cornwall, UK. It is surprising that it has done well at Kew, seeing as this garden is colder in winter than the other gardens in the UK where it has not survived. Kew, however, is hotter in summer, so perhaps that is what this oak requires (Allen Coombes, pers. comm.). None of the plants surviving in cultivation have flowered or produced acorns so far.

Quercus skinneri at Finca Chimax
The giant Quercus skinneri at Finca Chimax dwarf the three ladies of the party as they pick up acorns © Archives and Library of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Photos of Quercus skinneri in cultivation

Quercus skinnert at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew,
Quercus skinneri at Royal Botanic Gardens, grown from seed collected in Oaxaca in 2009, planted in 2015 ©  Maricela Rodríguez
Mature Quercus skinneri at CECON-USAC
A mature specimen of Quercus skinneri at the Botanic Garden at Universidad de San Carlos, Guatemala City (CECON-USAC) © Francisco Garin
Quercus skinneri acorns at Univ. de San Carlos
Maturing acorns on the tree at Universidad de San Carlos Botanic Garden © Francisco Garin
Quercus skinneri at Iturraran
Quercus skinneri at Iturraran Botanic Garden, from seed collected at Lago Atitlán, Guatemala in 2009 © Francisco Garin 
New growth on Quercus skinneri in Iturraran
The striking new growth of Quercus skinneri, Iturraran Botanical Garden © Francisco Garin 
Quercus skinneri leaves Iturraran
Quercus skinneri, Iturraran Botanical Garden  © Francisco Garin 
Emerging leaves on Quercus skinneri Iturraran
New leaves emerge at Iturraran Botanical Garden © Francisco Garin 

Photos of Quercus skinneri in habitat (El Salvador, 2022)

Quercus skinneri El Salvador
"...their tall straight trunks which for forty feet were clear of branches and as straight as eucalypts"; Quercus skinneri​​​​​, here in Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, El Salvador © Roderick Cameron
Quercus skinneri leaves El Salvador
Not quite as large as the leaves Fairchild describes, but impressive nonetheless; Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, El Salvador © Roderick Cameron
Quercus skinner acorn El Salvador
An unripe acorn; Parque Nacional Cerro Verde, El Salvador © Roderick Cameron

Acknowledgments

Coral Burgos-Soler was sponsored by a Florida International University Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center-Global Learning Medallion Research Fellowship that was made possible through the center’s U.S. Department of Education National Resource Center Grant. Javier Francisco-Ortega received support for summer research by Montgomery Botanical Center. Our gratitude to the Archives and Library of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for facilitating our historical research.


1 Department of Psychology and Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, Florida International University, Miami, Florida.

2 Jardín Botánico de Iturarran, Parque Natural de Pagoeta, Gipuzcoa, Euskadi.

3 International Oak Society

4 Instituto de Ciencias Biológicas, Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas, Mexico.

5 Institute of Environment-ICTB, Department of Biological Sciences; Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center; and Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University, Miami, Florida.

6 Montgomery Botanical Center, Coral Gables, Florida.

7 Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida.

8 Corresponding author (ortegaj@fiu.edu)