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Potato Bugs and Paris Green

Wrapping up the prairie gardening season of 2019, I bid farewell to some slimy companions. As I work in the beds, often barefoot, I welcome all the frogs, salamanders, and toads I touch with my toes. I like to see the nightcrawlers boiling up when I lay down a water hose.

I am not a strictly organic gardener, but I spend a lot of time in the beds, and we eat a terrific amount of our own produce, so I minimize the use of hot chemicals and deploy a lot of manure and compost. The slimy critters are my coal-mine canaries.

Lest we think that chemical agriculture and hazardous gardening are recent developments, let me share with you some highlights of a recent paper presented to the Western History Association by Lynn Ellen Bennett, of Utah Valley University. The subject of her paper is the pesticide, Paris Green, and its provocateur is the Colorado potato beetle.

Some other day I must devote an essay to this pesky American insect, but for today it is enough to say that it originated in the Rocky Mountain region and, when settlement breached the Great Plains, backtracked prairie trails to infest potato plantings across the continent.

Paris Green originated in Europe as a popular, although highly toxic, green dye used to color household items, paint, textiles, even foods--despite its content of the inorganic compound, copper arsenite. Farmers discovered it also was an effective insecticide. They readily embraced Paris Green to save their spuds.

Press coverage and agricultural bulletins disclose that Paris Green was generally used in North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Users laid it down in strips to stop advancing columns of army worms. They dusted cabbages with it to kill cabbage worms.

Most of all, North Dakotans used Paris Green on their spuds. Gardeners cut it with flour, which helped it adhere to foliage, and with lime, which helped prevent burning, and dusted it on. For field agriculture, farmers used a liquid mix in sprayers.

The state regulated the sale of Paris Green, which was the subject of a tense conversation between Professor Edwin Ladd of the agricultural college and the members of the state pharmaceutical association in 1905. Ladd’s lab tested the samples of Paris Green submitted under law by druggists. (If you think it odd that pharmacists were profiting from the state-sanctioned sale of deadly toxins, well, we can talk about that another day.)

State regulation in no way curtailed sale and use of Paris Green. It just damped down the content levels of “free arsenious acid” and limited the overall arsenic content.

Druggists across the stately loudly declaimed the availability of the pesticide. “Potato Bug Killer,” declared an ad in the Hope Pioneer in 1907. “There’s nothing equal to Paris Green for the destruction of the Potato Bug. OUR PARIS GREEN IS PURE and every pound is guaranteed.”

State agricultural scientists issued only a few cautions, mainly about inhalation of the powdered product, which caused eye, lip, and skin inflammations. Moreover, the sale of Paris Green through drugstores, dealing with the general public, had deadly effect.

As Professor Bennett concludes, the very properties that made Paris Green a ‘blessing’ for 19th century agriculturalists proved to be a catastrophe to themselves and their neighbors.” More on that in my next Plains Folk essay.

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