An illustration of cut twigs heeled into the ground.

How To…Plant and Graft All Sorts of Trees

By Michael Sappol

The oldest English-language how-to at the National Library of Medicine is a charming and practical little book dating from 1575. In keeping with the custom of the day, the title also serves as a brief description of the contents:

A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees, how to set stones, and sowe pepins, to make wylde trees to graffe on, as also remedies and medicines. With divers other newe practises, by one of the Abbey of Saint Vincent in France, practised with his owne handes…wyth an addition on the ende…of certayne Dutch practises set fwrth and Englished, by Leonard Mascall.

The book open to the title page including an illustration of a man and three trees in various stages of grafting.
A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees…, 1575
National Library of Medicine #2262027R

The grafting of plants, particularly grape vines and fruit trees, goes back to antiquity. It survived the fall of Rome and the incalculable chaos of life in Europe and the Mediterranean over many centuries. But was not widely practiced in 16th-century England. Leonard Mascall aimed to change all that with this illustrated how-to, a translation from a small work in French by David Brossard, a Benedictine monk. (Later on, Mascall became Royal Farrier to King James I. In other words he shoed the king’s horses and trimmed their hooves.)

The book is intended as a practical guide and does give the reader good advice on how to graft cherry to cherry, and apple to apple or pear. And some not-very-good advice on grafting plants that are incompatible, such as cherry to crabapple, fig to peach, and apricot to fig. It also advises readers on “how to set stones” (plant the pits of stone fruit such as almonds, peaches, plums and cherries) and “sow pepins” (plant the seeds of fleshy fruit such as apples and pears), and how to make ornamental grafts so that plants will grow in interesting patterns.

A poem headed The Book unto the ReaderMascall begins with this cheery poem (which I have partially translated into modern English spelling and punctuation):

Each wight [person] that willing is to knowe
The way to graft and plant
May here find plenty of that skill
That erst [before] hath been but scant…
The pleasure of this skill is great.
The profit is not small
To such men as will practice it…
The poor man may with pleasure find
Something to help his meede [to help him subsist].
So may the rich man reap some fruit
Where erst he had but weed.
The noble man that needeth naught
May thereby have at will
Such pleasant fruit to serve his use
And give each man his fill.
The common weal cannot but win
Where each man doth intend
By skill to make the good fruits mo[re]
And ill fruits to amend.
Weigh well my words and thou shalt find
All true that I do tell
Mine Author doth not write by guess
Practice made him excel.
If thou wilt practice as he did
Thou mayst find out much more
He hath not found out all the truth
That nature hath in store.

Grafting has advanced very far since Mascall’s day—people can now graft plants in ways that would have left Mascall breathless, and surgeons can graft skin, bone, tissues and body parts. But Mascall’s advice still applies. So to all of you grafters out there: practice, practice, practice!

Leonard Mascall, A booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees, how to set stones, and sowe pepins, to make wylde trees to graffe on, as also remedies and medicines. With divers other newe practises, by one of the Abbey of Saint Vincent in France [David Brossard], practised with his owne handes…wyth an addition on the ende…of certayne Dutch practises set fwrth [sic] and Englished, by Leonard Mascall (London, 1575); 5¼˝ x 7˝.

Read other How To… features from the NLM Collections here.

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

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