Seedsmen Hall of Fame
Honoring Horticulturalists

Thomas Laxton
Bedfordshire, England

Thomas Laxton - Source: Royal Horticultural SocietyThomas Laxton was born in Tinwell, Rutland, England in 1830.  Although he trained as a lawyer, his interests were in plant hybridization.*  By 1858, he was actively working with breeding plants.

Mr. Laxton was one of the first plant breeders to use the scientific method in the development of new plant varieties.  His experiments were well documented and well regarded.  His trials and observations with peas aided Charles Darwin in his writings.

As early as 1872, he began introducing new strawberry varieties.  This began the most extensive, and continuous, strawberry breeding program ever attempted in England at that time.

His first great success and the only variety he introduced that was not a handmade cross was the 'Noble' (1884), a seedling of 'Excelsior' that had been planted next to the 'American Sharpless'. Until the last few years it was a major early variety of many countries. It was notable for its earliness, its resistance to cold and to disease. Even as late as 1960, many acres were still being grown in Italy and in Scandinavia.

'King of the Earlies' ('Vicomtesse Hericart de Thury' x 'Black Prince') was introduced in 1888. In 1892, Laxton's other great variety, 'Royal Sovereign', nearly equal to 'Keens Seedling' in significance, was released. It was a cross of 'Noble' with 'King of the Earlies' and it had an American variety, 'Sharpless', in its ancestry. The earliness, excellent flavor, beauty, productiveness, hardiness and relatively good handling quality made it of great importance in Thomas Laxton, Later in Life - Source: USDAGreat Britain and throughout Europe. Its weaknesses are its great susceptibility to mildew and to virus diseases. It was still being raised in many parts of Europe into the late mid-20th Century.

Thomas Laxton originated seventeen strawberry varieties himself and after his sons took over the work in the 1890s, they along with their sons introduced forty seven more. 'Scarlet Queen', 'Leader', 'Fillbasket', 'The Laxton', 'Latest', 'Latest of All', 'Bedford Champion' and 'Duke', were some of the more notable of the other varieties.

Laxton understood the weaknesses of European varieties better than other breeders in the 19th century. The European varieties were not hardy and needed to be hybridized with stronger American varieties. He once said that he had raised at least 10,000 seedlings over his thirty two years of breeding strawberries.

By the time he had retired in 1890 he was living in Bedford. Throughout his career, his goal was to introduce better plant varieties rather than making money. He had been married twice, had three daughters from his first marriage and four sons from his second.  Thomas Laxton passed away in 1893.

Strawberries were not the exclusive area of focus for the later Laxton generations.  They also released  significantly improved apple, pear, plum and pea varieties, such as the 'Thomas Laxton' pea,  among other things.  In their over 100 years of horticultural improvement work, at least 180 different plant varieties are attributed to them.

After four generations and family tragedies, the business and its assets were liquidated in 1957.


Sources:

  1. Strawberry Improvement: Past and Future - USDA

  2. The Laxton Family


* - It should be noted that hybridization in the 19th Century context does not imply some sinister or ulterior motive as modern 21st Century corporate driven hybridization conjurs.  Hybridization, using classical breeding methods following natural law, is how all new varieties are developed.  The difference is that in this older, purer context, varieties are not released as unstable, first generation (F1) hybrids.  They are bred, grown, and selected out over several generations until they become stable, true-to-type and uniquely new varieties.


Referenced:

"So, again, Mr. Laxton, who has had such great experience in crossing peas, writes to me that "whenever a cross has been effected between a white-blossomed and a purple- blossomed pea, or between a white-seeded and a purple-spotted, brown or maple- seeded pea, the offspring seems to lose nearly all the characteristics of the white-flowered and white-seeded varieties; and this result follows whether these varieties have been used as the pollen-bearing or seed-producing parents."

"The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Volume II," Charles Darwin

"Recently Mr. Laxton has made numerous crosses, and everyone had been astonished at the vigour and luxuriance of the new varieties which he has thus raised and afterwards fixed by selection. He gave me seed-peas produced from crosses between four distinct kinds; and the plants thus raised were extraordinarily vigorous, being in each case from 1 to 2 or even 3 feet taller than the parent-forms, which were raised at the same time close alongside."

"The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom," Charles Darwin

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