(This article was originally published on March 7, 2009. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
March 7 is the 160th birthday of Luther Burbank, plant breeder and hybridizer.
Burbank belongs to the particularly American tradition of self-taught inventors, along with such other innovative geniuses as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Although he did not attend college, he was greatly inspired by Charles Darwin's The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication, and he always considered himself a Darwinist.
Burbank's method was empirical. He was an experimenter whose great virtue was persistence; he was willing to make thousands of crosses until he saw the results he wanted. He often crossed different plants just to see what the results would be, with no particular outcome in mind. But what really distinguished Burbank was the special knack he seemed to have for spotting a promising difference that might seem indistinguishable to others. He called this "intuition."
Another factor in Burbank's success was luck. In 1872, only a year after he began growing as a market gardener, he noticed an 'Early Rose' potato plant that had set seed. He planted the seeds, which produced 23 seedlings, and two of these had a fine-grained white flesh. He propagated these potatoes and one of them turned out to be the famous Burbank potato, the best-known of all his hundreds of products. A later variation, the 'Russet Burbank', is now the basis of the Idaho potato industry and the most widely grown potato in the U.S.
In 1975, he sold his interest in the potato to a commercial breeder for $150, which is reminiscent of the sale that exchanged Manhattan Island for a string of beads. The money was enough to take him to Santa Rosa, California, however, where he soon began his life's work breeding new plants and improving existing ones. Ten years later, he founded a second, larger experimental farm nearby.
Although he is best-known for the potato that bears his name, in California Burbank worked most extensively with fruits, in particular the genus Prunus. He imported Japanese plums as breeding stock, and from these he developed over a hundred new and improved varieties of plums. The 'Santa Rosa' plum was the best-known of these and it is still grown today. He also successfully crossed the Japanese plums with native beach plums. Besides plums, he bred many new varieties of cherries, peaches and nectarines, and he introduced the plumcot, a cross between plum and apricot.
In order to shorten the time required to test new hybrids, Burbank would bud graft his new seedling varieties onto a "mother" tree so they would bear fruit in less time than if the new tree had to be grown to maturity. Some of these mother trees might have as many as a hundred different varieties grafted to them, which astonished visitors to his experimental Gold Ridge Farm.
Burbank also worked extensively with blackberries, developing the thornless blackberry and a white variety - a novelty that was never commercially successful. He also produced a blackberry x raspberry cross.
Besides fruits, Burbank developed many kinds of flowers, with a particular interest in canna lilies and calla lilies. He crossed plants from many different parts of the world to yield new colors and shapes. One of his most notable discoveries, however, the fragrant calla lily, was another case of luck, as he discovered the mutant seedling by accident in a flat of unscented plants. In his lifetime, he produced fifty new varieties of lily.
The best-known of Burbank's flower introductions was the Shasta daisy, the result of 14 years of crossing American and European daisies. It is still widely grown today. He also bred the Fire poppy from the native California poppy.
In 1893, Burbank published his first catalog, New Creations in Fruits and Flowers, which greatly contributed to his growing fame. In this catalog, he offered his creations to professional growers, along with the exclusive rights to propagate the varieties. This was a more risky proposition than it would be today, as new plants could not then be patented.
Although Burbank was a respected member of several scientific associations and was awarded an honorary doctorate in science, he was much more of a commercial breeder than an academic scientist. Later in his career, he was criticized by the academics for his trial-and-error methods, as well as incompleteness in his records and notes. For Burbank, what mattered most was the resulting new plant, not rigorous methodology.
His reputation also suffered near the end of his career because he advocated the Lamarckian theory of acquired inheritance at the time that it was being discredited by Mendelian genetics, with which Burbank was not familiar. This was unfortunate, as understanding of Mendelian principles would have greatly assisted his work. He also adopted spiritualistic beliefs which caused some critics to take him less than seriously in his later life.
Today, however, Burbank's reputation as a plant breeder is secured by the many varieties of his fruits and flowers that are still grown. Burbank's work was the foundation on which much of American horticulture was built, and it is worth remembering that his goal was always to produce improved versions of plants that people could enjoy: larger, sweeter, more nutritious, more hardy, more beautiful.
"What a joy life is when you have made a close working partnership with Nature, helping her to produce for the benefit of mankind new forms, colors, and perfumes in flowers which were never known before; fruits in form, size, and flavor never before seen on this globe; and grains of enormously increased productiveness, whose fat kernels are filled with more and better nourishment, a veritable storehouse of perfect food--new food for all the world's untold millions for all time to come." 1
Today, his home and gardens near Santa Rosa have been preserved as a museum for the public to visit and learn about this prolific plant breeder. There is also an extensive museum website where virtual visitors can view the gardens both as they are now and as they were in the past, through photographs taken during Burbank's lifetime.
Russet Burbank Potato: © Steve Caruso http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/
Shasta Daisy: Plantfiles, thanks to hczone6
Burbank farm postcard: thanks to Kelli
1 Dreyer, Peter, A Gardener Touched with Genius (1975) p. 272
Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/HistSciTech/subcollections/LutherBurbankAbout.html