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Luther Burbank, Wizard of American Horticulture

By Paul Rodman (paulgrowApril 26, 2013
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We all love to grow things or we wouldn’t be on this website. Did you ever stop to think where did all of our plants come from? Whether it be flower, vegetable, tree, shrub or whatever. This is part of a series of articles of famous botanists and agricultural scientists. I think that we should know some of the people who brought us the plants that we so enjoy today.

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"The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love." So says Luther Burbank.

Do you love McDonald's french fries? You can thank Luther Burbank for developing the Burbank Russet potato, the variety "Mickey D's" uses for their french fries. The Burbank Russet is the most widely cultivated potato in the U.S.

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        Burbank Russet Potato

Born in 1849 Burbank grew up on a farm and received only an elementary school education. The thirteenth of fifteen children, he enjoyed the plants in his mother's large garden. His father died when Luther was 21; he used his inheritance to buy a 17-acre farm near Luenburg, Massachussettes. This is where he developed the Burbank Russet potato. In 1875 he sold the rights to the potato for $150, and used the money to move to Santa Rosa, California when he would remain for the rest of his life. He purchased a modest 4 acre farm where he established a greenhouse, nursery and experimental fields. He began his experimenting with the crossbreeding of plants at this location.


After several years at this location he purchased an 18-acre plot of land in the nearby town of Sebastopol. He continued his research at this larger site.  From 1904 through 1909 Burbank received several grants from the Carnegie Institution to support his ongoing research on hybridization. He was supported by the practical-minded Andrew Carnegie himself, over those of his advisers who objected that Burbank was not "scientific" in his methods.

Burbank became known through his plant catalogs, the most famous being "New Creations in Fruits and Flowers," and through the word of mouth of satisfied customers, as well as press reports that kept him in the news throughout the first decade of the century.

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Burbank carried on his plant hybridization and selection on a huge scale. At any one time he maintained as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. In his work on plums, he tested about 30,000 new varieties.

Besides the famed Idaho potato, Luther Burbank was also behind the cultivation of the Shasta daisy, the July Elberta peach, the Santa Rosa plum, the Flaming Gold nectarine, Royal walnuts, Rutland plumcots, Robusta strawberries, Elephant garlic, and many more plants.

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                Shasta Daisy       Elberta Peach

Burbank died in 1926 at the age of 77. In accordance with his wishes, his grave is unmarked. He was buried under a Cedar of Lebanon tree which he planted in front of his Santa Rosa cottage in 1893. The Cedar stood as a beloved landmark until its removal due to root disease in 1989.

At his widow's request the central garden was redesigned and dedicated in 1960 as a memorial park. This tranquil area, with its stone fountain surrounded by screened wood fencing, fulfilled Mrs. Burbank's wish for a design using plants, wood. Stone and water. That theme remains unchanged today.

Burbank's work spurred the passing of the 1930 Plant Patent Act after his death. The legislation made it possible to patent new varieties of plants.  In supporting the legislation, Thomas Edison testified before Congress in support of the legislation and said that "This bill will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks." The authorities issued Plant Patents #12, #13, #14, #15, #16, #18, #41, #65, #66, #235, #266, #267, #269, #290, #291, and #1041 to Burbank posthumously.

In 1986, Burbank was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in downtown Santa Rosa are now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

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The home that Luther Burbank was born in, as well as his California garden office, were moved by Henry Ford to Dearborn, Michigan and are part of Greenfield Village.

Next time you are in the garden take a look at some of your plants and reflect for a moment who developed these plants and silently thank them.

In closing I want to share a few of Luther Burbank's famous quotes.

"Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul."

"Listen patiently, quietly and reverently to the lessons, one by one, which Mother Nature has to teach, shedding light on that which was before a mystery, so that all who will, may see and know."

"Men should stop fighting among themselves and start fighting insects."


Thank you Luther!


  About Paul Rodman  
Paul RodmanPaul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program. Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic Gardening.com web site. He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years. He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan. His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
What a lot of people don't know ElementalDomain 0 4 Apr 29, 2013 10:46 AM
Burbank Was Diligent in His Work Indy 0 4 Apr 26, 2013 3:25 PM
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