I like to see what gardeners of the past used against pests. Partly it interests me because some of those older pests don’t even seem to be around today; partly I’m curious about some of those old pesticides that are less toxic (and less expensive) than many of the pesticides we have today. But not always, as this story will reveal.
I recently got several books in the Present-Day Gardening series, which ran from about 1910 to about 1912 (for some reason, they stopped putting dates on the later books in the series). I enjoy these British books for the view they give of gardening a hundred years ago: an intimate look into the varieties and methods British authorities thought made good gardens.
In the Sweet Peas book, I saw my old friend, tobacco spray, recommended for green fly (a British term for aphid). Tobacco was the all-purpose pesticide of the 1800s and early 1900s; many still use it today. Novels from the time before smoking became a public evil talk about asking smokers to sit near the rose bushes, because the smoke helped defend the roses against various bugs and blights.
In Sweet Peas, the first line of defense is supposed to be picking off aphids, because “When this pest becomes comfortably established on the plants it will need all the grower’s patience and perseverance to exterminate it; but it should never be allowed to settle itself so firmly. If a close look-out is kept at all stages of growth, and every fly that is seen is promptly destroyed, the trouble will be lessened materially. It multiplies with extraordinary rapidity, and the descendants of one or two pairs become a crowded city in a week.”
Some things don’t change in a hundred years. Aphids still multiply like crazy, and for organic gardeners, hand-picking (more like squishing, really) is still a good first line of defense.
If this doesn’t work, Horace J. Wright says, then it’s time for snuff (finely powdered tobacco) or a tobacco spray made with paraffin. (Paraffin means kerosene, not the hard wax we call paraffin in the U.S.)
The recipe goes like this: soak two ounces of shag tobacco in one gallon of water. While I don’t use such large quantities, this is the basic recipe for a tobacco spray. Adding the kerosene/paraffin solution sounds a bit more complicated: you boil 4 ounces of soft soap in one pot, and 4 ounces of quassia in another.
Quassia is a West Indian tree noted for its insecticidal properties, so here I have to wonder if maybe you couldn’t just leave the other items out of this recipe and still have success. Interestingly, quassia protects beneficials such as bees and ladybugs, while it kills plant-predator bugs. Quassia is also used for human health; readers of Louisa May Alcott may remember that Rose, the heroine of one of her books, was given a quassia cup by her sailor/doctor uncle, returned from foreign climes. If I recall rightly, Rose was pale and thin from loss of appetite. In the West Indies, these cups were filled with water, which was allowed to sit until it leached some of the properties from the wood. Then the water was drunk for fevers and indigestion.
Okay, so now we’ve got the tobacco solution, the quassia solution, the soap solution. (As with many old recipes, you don’t get the exact amounts of water the quassia and soap are supposed to be cooked in.) You put them in a gallon and a half of water: “place on the fire, and when the whole lot is boiling furiously, remove the pot, put in a wineglass full of paraffin, and stir vigorously; the working in of the oil when the water is boiling hard will go far to ensure perfect amalgamation.” They wrote so nicely in those days. Perfect amalgamation. Sounds like an album title. Too bad you’d be inhaling poisonous kerosene fumes while making that perfect amalgamation.
The final solution is sprayed on in a mist, preferably after the sun has gone down.
Without the kerosene/paraffin, this spray would be nontoxic to plants and soil, at least. With the kerosene, it’s not only poisonous, but stinky. We often romanticize former gardens, but it’s not all good stewardship and nontoxicity with these old-time pesticides. It wasn’t in the U.S., either. I asked my father once about the treatment he and his father gave the apple orchard every year. “Arsenate of lead,” was his reply.
Sweet Peas, Horace J. Wright, J.C. and E.C. Jack,Present-Day Gardening Series, 1910