Luther Burbank was the most well-known plant breeder of the Age of Agriculture. He was born March 7, 1849, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He had little formal science training, but his efforts to better the human condition by improving useful plants made him a folk hero throughout the world. Burbank's work is said to have advanced the science of horticulture by several decades.
Burbank's first, and foremost, contribution is evidenced with every baked potato and french fry eaten today. At the age of twenty-four, Burbank discovered a seed ball on the normally sterile Early Rose potato. Inspired by English naturalist Charles Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Burbank cultivated these seeds and used them to "build" the first white potato, the basis for the modern Burbank Russet Idaho potatoes.
In 1875, with $150 in proceeds from the sale of most of his potato stock, Burbank journeyed by train to California in search of a suitable climate for year-round cultivation . Burbank saw greater potential in the soil and climate of the state than in its famed gold mines. After a few rough years, Burbank was able to establish himself in Santa Rosa as a nurseryman who tried, and usually delivered, the impossible. After fulfilling an order for twenty thousand bearing prune trees from seed in nine months, Burbank earned a reputation as one who could succeed where others feared to try.
In 1893 Burbank's "New Creations in Fruits and Flowers" catalog created an international sensation, causing some to object that Burbank claimed powers of creation reserved only for God. Burbank believed that his plants were inventions that were developed in concert with God's agent: nature.
At his nursery, greenhouses, and experimental gardens, Burbank specialized in horticultural novelties, working on an at-demand basis for nurserymen. At any one time, Burbank might have tens of thousands of plants in cultivation and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of experiments in progress.
Burbank worked with flowers, fruits, trees, cacti, grasses, grains, and vegetables. His long-running experiments and his keen awareness of the correlation of nascent plant features with desirable traits in mature plants, helped him introduce or develop more than eight hundred varieties throughout his fifty-year career—that's a new plant every twenty-three days.
Among the many varieties he developed several are still widely used today: the Paradox Walnut (Juglans Regina x J. Californica var. ), developed as a fast-growing hardwood tree for the furniture industry, today the most common rootstock for walnuts; the 1906, Santa Rosa plum, a complex hybrid, still among the most cultivated varieties in the United States; and the quadruple hybrid Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum hybridum ), introduced in 1901, one of the most popular flowers in cutting gardens today.
Some of Burbank's more unusual novelties include: more than thirty-five varieties of spineless cacti for improved fruit and better forage for livestock; the plumcot, the first creation of an entirely new stone fruit; and the white blackberry, a flavorful berry without pigment to stain hands and clothing.
Burbank's methods were not unique, but he applied them on a greater scale than previously known. A wider range of experimental varieties, a longer period of study, and a greater number of experiments underway at a given time gave Burbank an unmatched breadth of experience and genetic variability from which to work. Using space- and time-saving methods such as grafting (sometimes hundreds of varieties on one nurse tree) and budding allowed him to grow several million plants during his career.
Burbank imposed environmental changes and numerous cross-fertilizations on imported plants from across the globe to induce as many perturbations or variants as possible. From the most promising plants Burbank continued to select, hybridize, reselect, and rehybridize for several generations until he developed a marketable plant.
He employed all of his senses to judge the worthiness of his creations. His criteria for success included both attractiveness and utility. "The urge to beauty," according to Burbank, "is as important as the urge to bread." (Explanation: Beauty is as fundamental as bread.)
Although Burbank had little formal scientific training in his early years, he enjoyed the friendship and support of many leading scientists. Favorable impressions of his work led to a prestigious and lucrative five-year Carnegie Foundation grant. His brand of applied scientific practice and the increasingly astounding accounts of his new creations, however, provoked scientists' ire as well as imagination.
Burbank believed heredity and environmental circumstances governed a plant's "life force." He asserted, as did French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), that acquired characteristics (accrued forces) were inheritable, a position that became increasingly unacceptable in the scientific world. He felt that many of the mutations heralded by ever more popular Mendalians were simply hybrids.
As his career progressed, Burbank became as well known for his un-orthodox social and religious beliefs as for his plant developments. In 1907 he wrote a book entitled The Training of the Human Plant that advocated that children should learn from natural surroundings until the age of ten, foregoing formal schooling. Burbank stated publicly that he felt himself to have supernatural powers.
Just before his death in 1926, Burbank was quoted in an article as proclaiming himself an "infidel," like Christ, a man who did not believe in traditional religion. This caused a firestorm of debate across the country. Burbank later clarified his meaning on national radio, "I am a lover of man and of Christ as a man and his work, and all things that help humanity. … I prefer and claim the right to worship the infinite, everlasting, almighty God of this vast universe as revealed to us gradually, step by step, by the demonstrable truths of our savior, science."
Burbank groomed no successors to his work. Although Burbank kept copious notes, he did not have the protection of plant patent laws, and he was protective of his practices. His efforts to institute such laws eventually encouraged their passage, but not until after his death. For years, despite his secretiveness, Burbank allowed visitors who paid admission to see his experiments. In 1905 a one-hour visit to the Sebastopol, California, experiment farm cost $10.
Burbank was twice married but had no children. He was laid to rest under a cedar of Lebanon tree he had planted from seed in front of his original home place. In death, he said, he should like to feel that his strength was flowing into the strength of the tree.
Burbank's birthday continues to be celebrated as Arbor Day in California. His legacy lives on in the form of hundreds of useful plants that benefit the world today and in his example of a man who lived a life true to his beliefs.
see also Agriculture, History of; Breeder; Breeding; Hybrids and Hybridization.
Dreyer, Peter. A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank. Santa Rosa, CA: Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, City of Santa Rosa, 1985.
Williams, Henry Smith, et al., eds. Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application. Santa Rosa, CA: Luther Burbank Press, 1915.
The American plant breeder Luther Burbank (1849-1926) originated many varieties of garden plants, grains, and fruits. He was popularly known as a "wizard" because of the stream of new and improved forms that came from his experimental farm.
In Luther Burbank's youth, botany was beginning to shed its taxonomic preoccupation and the interest of scientists was shifting to questions related to the theory of evolution—variation, species formation, modes of reproduction, and environmental effects. To a long-standing American interest in importation of foreign plant varieties was added an interest in the experimental production of improved forms. Agricultural experimental stations began to dot the country during the 1890s. Although Burbank was not a scientist and was essentially uninterested in scientific questions, he nevertheless drew his inspiration from this new scientific work, and his own success served to intensify public interest in such investigations.
Burbank was born on March 7, 1849, in Lancaster, Mass., the son of a farmer and maker of brick and pottery. He attended the district school until he was 15 and then spent four winters at the Lancaster Academy. Most of his scientific education, however, was obtained from reading at the public library in Lancaster. According to his own account, his reading of Charles Darwin's Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication in 1868 proved the turning point in his career, causing him to take the production of new species and varieties of plants as his life's work.
Beginning the Work
In 1870, 2 years after the death of his father, Burbank used his inheritance to help purchase a tract of 17 acres near the small town of Lunenburg, where he took up the business of market gardening. Here he produced his first "creation," the Burbank potato, and began the work that was to make him famous.
Despite his success as a market gardener, in 1875 Burbank decided to sell his land and move to California, where his three older brothers had already moved. He settled in Santa Rosa, where he would carry on his work for the next 50 years. Later he added a small amount of acreage adjoining a nearby town.
Following the Empirical Method
Although Burbank had read the scientific literature, he never operated as a scientist and apparently never thought of himself as one. His methods were empirical; he imported plants from foreign countries, made crosses of every conceivable kind—often for no apparent reason except, as he said, to get "perturbation" in the plants so as to get as wide and as large a variation as possible—and grew hundreds of thousands of plants under differing environmental conditions. He kept records only for his own use; once a project was completed and a new plant on the market, the records were generally destroyed. An effort made by the Carnegie Institution of Washington to collate the scientific data that came out of Burbank's experiments collapsed after a few years.
Although Burbank's methods were empirical, he did develop a store of knowledge that proved invaluable. This special knowledge (as emphasized by two scholars who studied the scientific aspects of his work) concerned correlations. Thus a minute, almost undetectable, variation in a young leaf, for example, may imply (or correlate with) a sweeter or plumper fruit, or a larger and more perfect flower. In his years of experimentation, Burbank gained an unrivaled mastery of such correlations, which, combined with his unusually keen sensory abilities, largely accounted for his success.
Originating New Forms
Burbank's creative work ranged over a long list of plants, but his strongest interests were in plums, berries, and lilies. He originated more than 40 new varieties of plums and prunes, mostly from multiple crossings in which Japanese plums played a prominent part. His work with berries, extending over 35 years, resulted in the introduction of at least 10 new varieties, mostly obtained through hybridizations of dewberries, blackberries, and raspberries. His years of experimentation with lilies resulted in a brilliant array of new forms, many of which became the most popular varieties in American gardens.
Best known among Burbank's flowers are the Shasta daisy, the blue Shirley poppy and the Fire poppy, and the fragrant calla. His wide range of techniques is illustrated by these. The Shasta daisy, a favorite of Burbank, was the result of a multiple crossing between a European and an American species of field daisy and then between these hybrids and a Japanese variety. The Shirley poppy was obtained by long selection from a crimson European poppy. The Fire poppy was a hybrid from a butter-colored species and a pure-white species that had a dull red in its ancestry. The fragrant calla, which has a perfume resembling that of the violet, was discovered by accident in a flat of Little Gem calla seedlings. His new fruits, besides the many plums and prunes, included varieties of apples, peaches, quinces, and nectarines. One of his less profitable creations, the result of an effort to excite "perturbations," was a cross between the peach and the almond. At one time or another, he worked with virtually all the common garden vegetables. One of his most unusual experiments resulted in the production of a series of spineless cacti useful for feeding cattle in arid regions.
Applying Principles to Humans
Burbank's work with plants convinced him that the key to good breeding was selection and environment, and he, like so many others of his time, tried to apply his concepts to human society. The product of his thinking on this subject was first published in 1907 as The Training of the Human Plant. Yet despite his vast experience in plant breeding, this book revealed his firm belief in the then-discredited theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics; accordingly, unlike most eugenists of the period, he stressed education and the provision of a good environment generally as the best way to remake human society.
Burbank was an honorary member of leading scientific societies all over the world. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Royal Horticultural Society. In 1905 he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by Tufts College. He died on April 11, 1926.
Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application, edited by John Witson (12 vols., 1914-1915), was written under Burbank's direction. For an intimate account by Burbank's sister, Emma Burbank Beeson, see The Early Life and Letters of Luther Burbank (1927), which had been published in 1926 as The Harvest of the Years. Biographical material is also in Henry Smith Williams, Luther Burbank: His Life and Work (1915). For a favorable assessment of Burbank's scientific work see David Starr Jordan and Vernon L. Kellogg, The Scientific Aspects of Luther Burbank's Work (1909).
American plant breeder known as the "Wizard of Santa Rosa." Burbank had experimental gardens in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, California. He used artificial selection and hybridization on a massive scale to produce new variations of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, including the Shasta daisy and the spineless cactus. Evolutionary scientists such as Hugo DeVries, David Starr Jordan, and Vernon Kellogg often visited his gardens to collect data that would help them better understand evolution.