Closing his section on Algeria, Vavilov writes:
Trabut and his student and successor [Ducellier], now unfortunately deceased, possessed an incredible knowledge of the nature of this country. Their encyclopedic knowledge allowed me to confidently orient myself within a short time among the assemblage of cultivated plants, to pick out the necessary material and to work out the evolutionary problems that are related to the origin of cultivated plants within the flora of northern Africa.
But who is this Trabut? Almost the only source of information in English is an appreciation written by T.H. Kearney when Trabut was awarded the Frank Meyer Memorial Medal for distinguished service in Plant Introduction.  Some extracts:
Louis Trabut was born in 1853 at Chambery in the beautiful mountain district of southeastern France. During his period of military service he was stationed in Algeria and found the country so much to his liking that after leaving the army he took up his residence in the colony which he has served so devotedly ever since. During the early years of his residence in Algeria he practiced medicine and has long held the professorship of botany in the School of Medicine of the
University of Algiers. …
Algeria, which faces France on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, was once a Roman colony and was in a high state of development at the beginning of the Christian era. Northern Africa was long the granary of the Roman Empire and was renowned also for its extensive vineyards and orchards. Traces of the advanced state of agriculture at that epoch are still to be seen in the numerous ruins of irrigation works and of mills for extracting olive oil. The Arab invasion swept away this ancient culture and much of the country was turned into a desert. In this condition it remained until the French occupation began, less than a century ago.
For more than a thousand years agriculture and horticulture were carried on almost exclusively by the Berbers, relics of the indigenous population who had sought refuge in remote mountain districts; the Arabs, essentially a nomadic and pastoral people, preferring to inhabit the plains and lowlands. The isolation and inaccessibility of the Berber communities were peculiarly favorable to the development and propagation of numerous varieties of cultivated plants. The result is seen to-day in the myriad races of the grape, fig, olive, apricot, and walnut grown in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunis.
Every little group of mountains, one might almost say every mountain village, has its peculiar varieties. In addition to the varieties now in cultivation, numbers exist in a half-wild state which are doubtless relics of ancient cultivation. There are also in northern Africa truly indigenous relatives of many of the cultivated plants. The country is therefore a storehouse of species and varieties whose utilization as resistant stocks whereon to graft more tender forms, or as material for improvement by selection and hybridization, offers a wonderful opportunity to the plant introducer and plant breeder.
A systematic study of the numerous races of wheat grown by the natives, several of which often are found in the same field, resulted in the segregation of the Pélissier variety, a black bearded wheat of the durum type, now extensively cultivated in Algeria. Locally grown varieties of oats, highly resistant to rust, have been discovered and popularized. …
Still more striking, perhaps, have been the results attained with orchard crops. … These investigations led to the interesting discovery that in varieties of fruit trees which are habitually seed-propagated by the Kabyle mountaineers, the seedlings are much truer to type than is the case with the standard vegetatively propagated varieties.
Bersim or Alexandrian clover, the most valuable forage plant of the Nile Delta, has been acclimatized after years of effort through the discovery and segregation of a strain resistant to low temperatures. With a view to fostering the cultivation of cotton and tobacco in Algeria, collections of the leading varieties of these crops have been assembled and progress is being made in the development by selection and hybridization of races adapted to the local conditions.
Trabut has discovered several natural hybrids between different species of Eucalyptus, a tree which is exten- sively grown in Algeria. One of these, named in his honor Eucalyptus Trabuti, gives a wood suitable for cabinetmaking and said to resemble mahogany. Another hybrid, E. algeriensis Trabut, he has found to be self-sown, which is not the case with other members of the genus in Algeria. Superior and more productive races of the camphor tree and of the soapberry tree have been developed by selection.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO AMERICAN AGRICULTURE
There is no little resemblance in climate and in the native and cultivated vegetation between Algeria and the southwestern United States. The Mediterranean littoral, with its chaparral-clad hillsides and its mountain forests of live-oak and pine, finds its counterpart in the coast region of California. The interior plateau, covered largely with coarse bunch grass, resembles the high plains of New Mexico, and the vast Sahara is reproduced on a smaller scale in the deserts of southeastern California. This similarity of conditions has made the North African colony a Mecca of agricultural explorers in search of plants for introduction into the southwestern United States. Cooperative relations with Dr. Trabut were established more than twenty years ago by Walter T. Swingle and David Fairchild of the Bureau of Plant Industry, and as a result hundreds of Algerian plants have been brought to this country.
Numerous but unsuccessful efforts had been made to produce the fine Smyrna fig in California, the reason for the earlier failures having been the absence of the tiny insect (Blastophaga) which caprifies or pollinates the female flowers. With the aid of Dr. Trabut, Blastophaga finally was introduced successfully by Mr. Swingle and Smyrna fig production is now a thriving industry in California. Trabut has also co-operated enthusiastically in the introduction of numerous varieties of dates from the North African deserts and has the credit of inventing an effective method of maturing the fruit on the tree by enclosing the clusters in paper bags.
Pélissier wheat, one of Trabut’s selections, ranks among the best of the hard wheats tested in Montana by the Office of Cereal Investigations of the Bureau of Plant Industry and has reached the stage of commercial production in that state. It appears to be especially suitable for the manufacture of macaroni and semolina. …
Great as is the value, actual or potential, of the plants introduced or bred by Dr. Trabut, the inspiration of his career is after all his greatest gift to humanity. He has set a priceless example in devoting his brilliant, highly-trained, well-stored mind to the lifelong service of his countrymen and of all mankind.
Many of us who are interested in the history of agriculture have a favourite quote from Jean Henri Fabre:
“History … celebrates the battle-fields whereon we meet our death, it scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of the kings’ bastards, it cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.“
I wish I could find out more about the history of date growing in California and Australia, both of which owe a huge debt to Trabut; this will have to do for now. Vavilov noted his debt to Trabut before heading off to Morocco. I hope to have given the man his due, before we too follow Vavilov west.
- Kearney, Thomas H., ‘LOUIS TRABUT, BOTANIST AND PLANT BREEDER’, J Hered , vol. 13, no. 4, 153-160 (1922). [↩]