A Southern Luther Burbank

They said “it couldn’t be done”.
But Bob Dunstan did it.
Not once, but twice. And then again - did what in plant breeding “can’t
be done”:
Hybridizing two different grape species, and later bringing back from
the dead the vanished American chestnut tree.
They said it couldn’t be done.
But Bob Dunstan did it.
And they began to call him a “Southern Luther Burbank.”
He successfully crossed the sturdy native American Muscadine
(Muscadinia rotundifolia) with the fancy elite European table “bunch” grape
(Vitis vinifera) - to create the basis for a whole new burgeoning grape
agribusiness in Florida, his adopted state.
He resurrected from the grave the long dead American chestnut,
selectively breeding a completely blight-free tree, to become the largest US
chestnut tree grower and to lay the groundwork for a whole new chestnut
growing industry.
Not for nothing did they call him a “Southern Luther Burbank.”
Nobody would have seemed a more unlikely candidate to inherit the
mantle of the fabled California horticulturist.
First of all, Dunstan was an “amateur”, in the most Latinate literal
sense of the word - a man who played with plants for the sheer love of it, a
life-long gardener who did his first hip-pocket planting in a mere two acre
back yard.
He did not WORK the earth, he ADORNED it. Neighbors laughingly said,
“there’s Dr. Dunstan again, down kissin’ the earth.”
In the end he both astounded and confounded the high-ranking experts
with his “it can’t be done” , “scientifically impossible” results, and won kudos
from professional researchers and commercial plant breeders alike.
Unlikely candidate? A lifelong academic and intellectual, a brilliant
college professor and teach of French, native-fluent in several languages, a
courtly ole-fashioned Southern gentleman of the old school, whose friends
called him “Marse Bob” (after that paragon of gentility, his namesake Robert
E. Lee)?
No formal training in horticulture but what he read and learned from
scholars and researchers and in his own garden? A plant breeder who had
never known anything but ol’ timey Carolina roses and kitchen gardens till he
was grown or a chestnut tree until he was in his 40’s?
It IS an unlikely story - as unlikely perhaps as that of the two bicycle
shop repairmen who flew their world-changing contraption off a sand dune at
Kitty Hawk, when Bob Dunstan was three years old, only a stone’s throw
from Bob’s family’s beach house.
It is pure coincidence (as most inventions are), past sheer luck, past
the inventor’s deep wild hunches of “things that aren’t but CAN BE.” It is
past vision and the dogged persistence to keep on trying ---
It began a long time ago.
Bob Dunstan was born in 1901, the fourth son of a Civil War surgeon in
Windsor, NC, a tiny east Carolina village with few possibilities for a bright kid
beyond reading or hunting and fishing the swamps, sounds, and rivers in a
cypress dugout canoe. Read he did, and was Valedictorian of his little high
school class. ( I still have his handwritten valedictory speech in the neat
Spencerian script everyone in those days had to learn.)
To pay his tuition at Old Trinity College (later known as Duke University,
but this was still before the tobacco millions poured into it) in Durham, a
training ground for Methodist Ministers, he trapped, tanned, and sold
thousands of swamp animal pelts, much in demand then - deer, beaver,
muskrat, even mink.
In college he was discovered to have a brilliant talent for foreign
languages. He spoke without any trace of accent, the way an “opera diva”
with perfect pitch sings - and was encouraged to seek a PH.D. in Romance
Languages at the University of Wisconsin. There, he adored ice and snow
sports, went bald at 23, married, and even gave sermons in Italian to local
churches and was asked to preach at black churches!
In 1927, at age 26, he became the youngest department head, the
baldest and most popular teacher, at Greensboro College, a liberal arts
Methodist girls college, where he stayed, still the baldest and most popular
teacher, for 36 years.
At home, for fun, he spoke French with his wife, Katherine, an artist,
and two little girls.
But a green destiny was stirring in his blood.
In 1929 he bought two country acres, and in the hereditary Southern
tradition of “land is the only thing that lasts”, he began to grow things. He
grew wonderful fresh things to eat (by now it was Deep Depression and
salaries were cut in half) - tomatoes as big as cantaloupes, a “greens” he
accidentally created between collards and kale. And besides the white sweet
potatoes and other staples, exotic fruits like black, white, red and yellow
raspberries side by side, white dewberries from Burbank’s experiments, rare
peaches and apples, white cherries (nobody in this neck of Carolina had even
seen such things!) and great spreading arbors of the fragrant old
muscadines and scuppernongs of his childhood, where friends and neighbors
gathered on late summer days. The old Memory muscadine arbor was 40
feet square.
Here pure chance threw the dice. A friend of a friend from Duke, an
economist whose hobby was antique roses, asked Dr. Dunstan, already
beginning to be known as a horticulturist, to “baby sit” his prize roses for
him for a year while he went to France for a year’s study. Bob Dunstan
happily dug up the Durham roses and nursed them for a year in his own
backyard garden.
As a thank-you gift when he returned from his year abroad, in 1938
the friend brought Dr. Dunstan, his rose “nursemaid”, a package of 30 rare
hybrids of the most elegant of the French table grapes he had tasted there.
For over 100 years grape breeders had been unsuccessfully tying to cross
euvitis and rotundifolia. In this country there were only a few of the French
Hybrids available. Dunstan notified research stations and private vineyards
that he would share his rare collection, including Seibel and Seyve-Villard
selections and including 20 viniferas (White Muscat of Alexandria, Golden
Muscat, among others).
Thus began decades of enthusiastic and detailed correspondence and
plant sharing with dozens of researchers, breeders, growers, and hobbyists
like himself, including Philip Wagner (Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards), Dr. H. P.
Olmo (U.C. Davis), B.O. Fry in Georgia, and Robert Zehnder in S.C., and many
others who soon came to visit and see for themselves the many newly
propagated vines.
Thus began the legend of “it couldn’t be done” grape breeding.
Recalling his earlier role-model, Luther Burbank, Bob Dunstan, in his
little back yard seedling plots, began to dust pollen from one species to
another to see if he could improve the few table grape varieties available in
the Southeastern U.S. (He laughingly called it “pimping” his grapes.)
And surprise! Among the hundreds of little plants that weren’t
supposed to breed together - they bred! He had succeeded in backcrossing
an F1 hybrid known as “NC 6-15” with euvitis! The resulting seedling, “DRX-
55.” was also fertile, making possible a second backcrossing.
Problems with Pierce’s disease led Dunstan to experiment with
colchicine to induce fertile hybrids in the tetraploidal varieties. He called
some of the sumptuous new crosses “Carolina Black Rose,” “Aurelia”, and
“Rojote”, and D-211 - feasts for the eye as well as the palate. (Ed. note -
Carolina Black Rose, Aurelia and D-211 were actually hybrids between
vinifera and some of the French Hybrids. Only Rojote had muscadine in it’s
At the same time, he was crossing pecan and native hickory trees; he
produced a “he-can” tree with viable, delicious, heavy bearing nuts. On one
tree, with a hammock slung under it, he grafted 39 different varieties of
nuts - a neighborhood “seventh wonder of the world.” Naturally, he became
one of the early members of the Northern Nut Growers Association (there
was not yet a Southern branch), whose members were his frequent
correspondents and visitors the rest of his life.
Soon professional and hobby growers all over the South and East began
to flock to Bob Dunstan’s North Carolina backyard plots to see for
Still, the experts insisted, “It can’t be done. It’s a fluke.”
Again the long arm of coincidence intervened.
On the way to national grape research meetings at Cornell, Dunstan
met and became instant friends with Dr. Haig Dermen, a USDA cytologist
from Beltsville, MD. My father said their instant rapport took place because
as a linguist he knew how to pronounce Dr. Dermen’s name correctly - not to
rhyme with “vermin” as his colleagues did, but in harmony with his near
Eastern origin, “Dare-MEN.”
It was Dr. Dermen’s cytological research which proved beyond any
shadow of doubt the scientific validity of his successful cross.
Significantly, it proved it possible to pursue the work of breeding at the
diploid level by using conventional techniques of recombination and selection -
to breed new varieties of grapes to possess the best qualities of both the
euvitis and the muscadines, to adapt to the Southeast’s growing conditions.
Dunstan’s seminal work began to be published internationally as well as
by the Journal of Heredity here in the U.S. The French equivalent, Bulletin de
L’O.I.V. asked him to submit his first article - which he wrote in French, of
course! Newspapers and other journals picked up his story - even Wine East,
for instance.
The experts finally had to eat not only their words, but his luscious new
fruits as well. A steady stream of visitors kept coming to the Greensboro
vineyards. His friends addressed him as “Dear Grape-Nut”.
Bob Dunstan’s daughter Aurelia - for whom the new grape was named -
had married Dr. Alvin Wallace in 1945 - the first statistical plant genetics
PH.D. from NC State College. The two began a lifelong intellectual and
scientific exchange - a “family” relationship with a theoretical plant breeder
who could coach him in all the complex science of what he was already on a
practical basis performing.
When the Wallaces moved to Florida in 1950, another whole new
chapter in Dunstan’s plant breeding career ensued.
In between times, Bob and Katherine took of the study of Russian, just
for fun!
For the third time, Lady Luck stuck her nose in.
One of Dunstan’s nut grower friends, James Carpenter, on a hunting
trip in Ohio, in the deep woods stumbled upon, in a forest of dead trees, one
huge LIVE healthy chestnut tree. Remember, American chestnut trees, all
3.5 billion of them - had been totally wiped out in this country ban
accidentally introduced blight brought into New York harbor in 1904. By
1940 millions of acres of this economically important food, farm, and lumber
staple were dead and gone, the largest botanical catastrophe in U.S. history.
Yet here, one sturdy sample had survived. Carpenter quickly sent cuttings
to his already well-known amateur breeding buddy, Bob Dunstan.
There began the next “it can’t be done” tale. In his hip-pocket seed
beds, Dunstan began to cross and backcross the new chestnut, cross
pollinating with a resistant Chinese chestnut and grafting to Chinese stock.
In the early 1960’s the Dunstans, now retired from teaching, followed
the Wallaces to Florida, to a picturesque 90 acre hillside farm near Alachua.
Dunstan brought along the F2 six-year old chestnut trees and had USDA
experts inoculate them with the chestnut blight fungus to test their
immunity. Not one tree showed any trace of susceptibility. Forty years
later they are still immune.\
He had literally brought back these trees from the dead. Thus he set
the stage for the renaissance of the chestnut-growing agri-industry, which
continues to expand exponentially all over the country. Aptly, the new
varieties were named “Dunstan” and “Renaissance,” the only patents ever
given to a chestnut.
At the same time, he began his Florida grape breeding program, which
was to attract experts, growers, and correspondents from all over the world
to see and taste, and share, literally, the fruits of his labors. Dunstan gave
cuttings and nuts freely to anyone who was interested - a true amateur, in
the best sense of the word.
And again, is it Lady Luck again or the horticulturalists vision?
A Japanese graduate student in genetics, whose major professor was
the son-in-law Al Wallace, was so fond of his mentor and teacher that when
the student returned to Japan, he sent Wallace a large shipment of
persimmon trees, more than 30 luscious varieties not previously grown in
that area of Florida. The two “family” plant breeders grafted some of these
to native wild persimmon root stock, and in a few short years the green hills
of Chestnut Hill Farm were blanketed with the bejewelled-orange (Kaki)
persimmon trees. Aurelia recalls when “every flat surface in the entire
house and barn was covered with carpets of orange, ripening persimmons.”
In the 1970’s as the grape breeding continued, Pierce’s disease took a
heavy toll on the North Carolina-bred cultivars, which also suffered from the
hot wet - not dry - summers. The muscadines and scuppernongs, however,
flourished and produced the basis for the “Fry” variety, the budding Florida
wine industry, and the pick-it-yourself vineyard business.
In addition, Dunstan collected and propagated many unusual “first”
fruits and plants in this fertile black soil - the “Anna” apple from Israel (‘you
can’t grow apples in Florida” - where had he heard this nay-saying before?)
cold-hardy citrus, figs, jujubes (an Oriental fruit like date not grown here
before), peaches, (before adapted varieties were developed by Florida
breeders) even odd papayas.
His new chestnut trees were now tested by growers all over the United
States, all found to be resoundingly blight resistant and a great business
He was, obviously, a founding member of NAFEX, the North American
Fruit Explorers.
Then in 1991, Al Wallace died of cancer.
Bob Dunstan’s only grandson and namesake Robert Dunstan Wallace,
spurred into a biology degree at the University of Florida by growing up with
his enthusiastic, creative grandfather and father, moved to the Dunstan
Farm in 1971. He and his wife Deborah established “Chestnut Hill Farm” to
propagate the “Dunstan” chestnut to growers nationwide - and to receive
the only plant patent every granted to chestnuts in the USA.
By 1985 Chestnut Hill had also begun to propagate and ship a wide
variety of fruits from the grandfather’s collection, especially persimmons.
In 1987, at the very height of his fame, influence, and productivity,
visited by experts from all over the world, including the ones who had said “it
couldn’t be done” -
Bob Dunstan, too, died of cancer, July 16, 1987.
* * *
By 1990, Chestnut Hill had become the largest grower of chestnut and
persimmons trees in the US, selling to commercial growers. Both crops have
proven profitable orchard crops in the US alone.
By 1995, Chestnut Hill, still under the continuing benevolent “green”
spirit of Bob Dunstan guiding his grandson, was expanding production into all
kings of fruit trees and berries, especially University of Florida and Dunstan
varieties selected for low-chill environments. “CHN” as we call it, has
doubled in acreage: It supplies Home Depot, Walmart, and Lowe’s with an ever
expanding menu of fruit trees, berries, and ornamental trees. Thus it has
become one of the largest fruit-tree producing nurseries in Florida and in the
Florida’s Governor Lawton Chiles was impressed enough to invite Bob
Wallace to plant a chestnut tree at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee
and to order 200 more for his own farm.
In 1998 and again in 1999, Florida Business named Chestnut Hill
Nursery and Orchards as “one of the 100 fastest-growing businesses in
Bob Wallace, grandson of the backyard gardener who changed the face
of horticulture in the Southeast, whose challenge from the experts was “It
can’t be done” thus becomes the third generation to meet that challenge
with faith, energy, vision, and know-how - a combination of fortuitous
circumstances, guts, perseverance, and the visionary hunches that led his
grandfather into plant breeding worlds no one had ever before dreamed of.
So the next time you hear, “It can’t be done!”, think of Bob Dunstan.
No wonder they called him a “Southern Luther Burbank”!
Aurelia Dunstan Wallace
2381 NW 18 Pl.
Gainesville, FL. 3260