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James Fletcher


James Fletcher and botany

James Fletcher was born in Ashe, near Wrotham in Kent County, England, in 1852 and was educated at King's School, Rochester. When he arrived in Canada in 1874 he must have brought a considerable knowledge of natural history with him. Certainly in the years leading up to his appointment as Dominion entomologist and botanist he accumulated much information on these disciplines. He was one of the founding members of The Ottawa Field-Naturalists' Club and in the early volumes of that organization's journal, published a series entitled Flora Ottawaensis (Boivin and Cody 1955). He had a personal herbarium numbering about 3000 species by 1886.

When the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa was established, the plans contemplated the formation of an arboretum and botanic garden. Its purpose would be to bring together all the native species of plants in Canada and to test the hardiness and adaptibility of shrubs and trees growing in northern climates in other parts of the world to the climate of Ottawa.

The actual work of the garden was begun in 1889, when 210 species were planted. The direct management, at first in the hands of the entomologist and botanist, James Fletcher, was later transferred to W.T. Macoun, the son of John Macoun. In 1894 the arboretum and garden included 1000 trees and nearly 200 species and varieties of herbaceous plants, but by the close of the year 1895, these numbers had been raised to 1800 and 1000, respectively.

Fletcher carried on an extensive correspondence in the fields of his responsibility. His letters, which are bound in annual volumes, occupy about 2.5 m of shelf space in the Public Archives at Ottawa. He traveled widely across Canada and spoke to many groups on insects and plant pathology as well as on weeds and other plants, and he gathered specimens for the herbarium as time permitted. His publication The Farm Weeds of Canada (1906, 1909), coauthored with George H. Clark and illustrated in color by Norman Criddle, is now a collector's item.

Tributes to Fletcher and a list of his published writings may be found in a memorial number of The Ottawa Naturalist 22(10): 189-234, 1909

James Fletcher and mycology

Even before his appointment James Fletcher was alive to the significance of fungi as plant parasites. In 1882 and 1883 he collected parasitized fruits of Potamogeton natans, P. pusillus, and P. vaseyi. Farlow (1884) identified the parasite as a smut, Doassansia.occulta, previously unreported in the New World. The fact that Fletcher knew Farlow to be the logical recipient of his smutted material indicates the breadth of his reading. Fletcher was also the collector of the only known specimen of a rust, Puccinia arabicola, but the date of collection is uncertain. What seems to have been the phanerogamic voucher was made in 1878, but the rusted leaves seem to have been removed several years later and given to John Macoun who sent part of the collection to J.B. Ellis (Savile 1974).

When Fletcher transferred to the Central Experimental Farm as Dominion entomologist and botanist, he was already well informed on the major crop diseases and their pathogens; and he was dealing with growers' requests for help, as Estey (1983) has noted. How an accountant in the parliamentary library could acquire such knowledge is difficult to explain, but it seems probable that he had access to the American Plant Disease Bulletin in the library. Before the recognition of physiological disorders and virus diseases of plants, plant pathology and applied mycology were essentially synonymous; and Fletcher, a practising plant pathologist for part of his t ' ime, certainly appreciated the role of pathogenic fungi. He wrote on disease control topics in farm newspapers and departmental bulletins, as well as by letter. We cannot claim him as a mycologist, but there is good support for Estey's claim that he was the first Canadian plant pathologist. As far as we know he did not keep a mycological collection, for which he cannot be faulted in view of his manifold obligations. However, through his recognition of the importance of fungal pathogens he laid the foundation for systematic mycology in the department, which began to develop within a decade after his death.

After 1893 Fletcher turned over most of his plant pathology experiments to John Craig, the recently appointed Dominion horticulturist, but he remained involved in plant disease problems and correspondence.

There is on file in the National Mycological Herbarium a list of over 800 plant parasitic fungi in Canada on plants of forest, orchard, garden, field, and meadow, and a few weeds. This substantial list, in Fletcher's hand, was compiled in February 1896. It was perhaps modeled on the more extensive list published by Farlow and Seymour (1888-1891), to judge by its format. It is, of course, much less complete, but it also contains species (or at least names) that are not in Farlow and Seymour, and it is definitely not copied from that work. It is hard to imagine how he came by many of the records, but some may be based on specimens that he sent to Farlow.

With Fletcher's death in 1908 the era of the gifted amateur in Canadian biology came nearly to a close. Inevitably he was replaced by two men: C. Gordon Hewitt as Dominion entomologist and Hans T. Güssow as Dominion botanist, both trained in Europe. We ordinarily date the establishment of these divisions from 1909, when Hewitt and Güssow were appointed. However, it should be noted that although Fletcher held a joint appointment he did not always use his joint title but often split it to suit the subject in hand. This seemingly whimsical action applied not only to letters but to publications. Thus we have on file a pamphlet on potato blights, published by him in 1894 as from the Division of Botany, Central Experimental Farm. Perhaps he was informing William Saunders, his director, that he was doing two men's work, as indeed he was.

Information courtesy of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

This page was revised 31 May 2012
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