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HONORING PLANT BREEDER

Elwyn Meader

If you’ve ever grown vegetables or raised fruit or flowers, Professor Elwyn M. Meader’s work has probably touched your life. Always a generalist, Meader introduced more than 60 varieties from beets to peaches, from kiwi fruit to chrysanthemums. His dedicated unselfishness in sharing germplasm and ideas with colleagues throughout the world may have been an even greater contribution than his varieties.

At least half his introductions came after he “retired” from a distinguished 18-year career as plant breeder at the University of New Hampshire. He could have gotten rich from royalties on all his releases, but instead he gave them away “as payment for his space on the planet.” “I was working for the taxpayers,” he would say in his broad Yankee accent, “and the results of my work belonged to them.”

A deeply religious Quaker, Meader was always modest about his creations, but not shy about his opinions. He disdained plant patenting. “Plants shouldn’t be patented if there has been one dollar of federal or state money used to fund development.” At one point in the 1950s he refused to serve on university committees (except one to abolish all committees) maintaining he had been hired to do breeding work only. He offered inspiring advice to the wave of homesteaders who arrived in the sixties, “Try all things. Hold on to that which is good,” but added curtly, “If you can’t make it without bringing along your TV, you’d better forget the whole thing.”

Meader found much of his original material in Korea from 1946-1948 while serving as a horticulturalist for the U.S. army command. Present strains of gynoecious (all female) hybrid pickling cucumbers, which have revolutionized the pickling industry, derive from germplasm he collected in Korea. He recognized cold hardiness, photoperiod adaptation and disease resistance in Korean plant material, and later introduced those traits into his squash, soybean, melon and raspberry varieties. While traversing a Korean mountainside he found seeds for the Miss Kim Lilac which became a nursery industry standard.

He credited his development of Royalty Purple Pod bean to his wife’s suggestion that it would be easier to pick beans if the pod color differed from the vine color. He also did considerable work reselecting #3392 Gigante Kohlrabi.

Meader became legendary for his acute powers of observation, precision of detail and almost total recall of information he had gleaned from decades of studying plant characteristics. His passing in 1996 may have closed an era. Proud of his self reliance (for example, he cut all his firewood using only hand tools), Meader asserted that “a committee of one works best.” But he also believed that the most valuable thing he’d ever done was to give things away. “Cast your bread upon the waters and you’ll get it back in many days.”