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Teaching Trees – Tree Teaching: The Ancient Art of Grafting

Laurence Totelin

Senior Lecturer, Cardiff University, Ancient History

The art of grafting, that of cloning trees, played a crucial role in the propagation of staple fruits trees, such as the apple, the pear, the cherry, the fig, and the olive, in the ancient Mediterranean world. It also led to the development of ornamental trees that bore several varieties of fruits. Greek and Roman authors interested in botany and agriculture, and most prominently Theophrastus, Varro, Vergil, Columella and Palladius, wrote extensively on the various techniques of grafting. They often conveyed moral messages in their descriptions, by comparing grafting either to marriage or to adoption. Modern scholarship on ancient grafting has focussed on the origins and the practical and botanical aspects of the techniques (Pease 1933; Foxhall 2007: 109-11; Hardy and Totelin 2016: 135-41), as well as on their symbolic and poetic value (Ross 1980; Bovey 1999; Clément-Tarentino 2006; Hunt 2010; Lowe 2010; von Stackelberg 2014). This paper combines these two approaches by asking questions relating to teaching. First, how was the art of grafting taught and transmitted in antiquity? Second, what were ancient horticulturists attempting to teach their trees by grafting them? And finally, what did ancient horticulturists try to teach their apprentices by teaching their trees?

Ancient authors include long descriptions of grafting techniques in their writings. The tone is undeniably didactic: they are imparting knowledge that is seemingly practical and replicable. However, people who have attempted grafting themselves (Hanson 1999: 35) know that grafting is a deceptively simple-looking art: the rate of failure for the inexperienced grafter is high, and with failure comes lost produce and income. In the modern Mediterranean, most grafting is carried out by expert, itinerant grafters. Can we assume that the situation was the same in the ancient world? That the art was passed on from father to son, or master to apprentice?

Ancient grafting was not merely an art that could be taught, it was one that taught trees. It taught them to be domesticated. Indeed, grafting often involves a wild rootstock onto which a domesticated scion is grafted. Both the wild and the domesticated learn and gain from each other: the rootstock imparts vitality and strength to the scion; and the scion imparts fertility to the rootstock. The union is often described as one or marriage: the wild rootstock is male, and the domesticated scion is female. Alternatively, it is seen as a form of adoption: the wild rootstock is the adoptive parent, and the domesticated scion is the child. The danger, however, is that this union may lead to barrenness or to monstrous offspring. That union must be carefully controlled and monitored; it is not something that comes naturally, rather it must be taught.

Scholars have often noted that ancient texts include descriptions of grafts that are botanically impossible (e.g Bovey 1999; Lowe 2010). They have shown that these descriptions reveal anxieties surrounding (human) kinship: scions (wives, adoptive children) must be carefully chosen and monitored, lest monstrous children, who will destroy the family, should be produced. I will argue that stories of impossible grafts may have originated as tales that master grafters told their apprentices. These stories would have taught the apprentice that not all grafts are possible, and that not all marriages are possible. Whether master and apprentice were related by blood or not, their bond would have created a form of kinship, in which the master would have had some say in the future of his charge. We know that similar stories were transmitted by plant traders and plant gatherers in the ancient world (Hardy and Totelin: 41-9), where they often have a fantastical aspect. The grafting stories that have come down to us, retold in polished prose or cast into beautiful verse, may have their root in the folk tales of ancient expert grafters, whose aim was to keep their art within the family.

Session/Panel Title:

Techne and Training: New Perspectives on Ancient Scientific and Technical Education

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