Today, March 7, is Luther Burbank’s birthday. If you have ever eaten a baked russet potato or a bag of McDonalds French fries, you can thank Burbank. Savor the perfection of a sweet Elberta peach? Admired a Shasta daisy? Nibbled a Santa Rosa plum? Thank Burbank, a self-trained plant breeder who developed over 800 new varieties in a career than spanned more than 50 years.
Born on March 7, 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the thirteenth of fifteen children, Burbank received little more than an elementary education. By his mid-twenties, he had already sold the rights to the Burbank potato, the ancestor of the quintessential American baked-potato side served at steakhouses and family dinners alike and still the most widely planted potato in the United States.
In 1877, Burbank established a farm in Santa Rosa, California and launched his horticultural career as a nurseryman and plant breeder. He sold plants through catalog and by word of mouth promoting novelties like a thornless blackberry and the plumcot (hybrid between apricot and plum). He seems to have independently discovered the principles of Mendelian genetics, which were not available in the scientific literature until after 1900. Even though he “had an uncanny ability to select, sometimes over many generations, for several traits simultaneously toward an ideal type that he envisioned at the start,” academics didn’t respect his methods or lack of credentials. The Andrew Carnegie Foundation funded his work for five years, but terminated it when his lack of detailed scientific records was discovered by his sponsors. Not much of a businessman, he released unproven experimental stock that was resold as “Burbank creations” which undermined his reputation. In his sixties, Burbank sold the rights to propagate his creations under his name; when that company went bankrupt, his reputation was further damaged.
Burbank’s fame and influence persisted, however. Thomas Edison was a friend. Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York, called him “one of the greatest Americans that ever lived.” He was in favor of plant patenting, and four years after his death his letter in support of federal Plant Patent Act was read into the Congressional debate. He was awarded posthumously over a dozen plant patents.
A 1945 summary of his work noted that “‘Burbank introduced over 200 varieties of fruits alone, consisting of 10 different apples, 16 blackberries, 13 raspberries, 10 strawberries, 35 fruiting cacti, 10 cherries, 2 figs, 4 grapes, 5 nectarines, 8 peaches, 4 pears, 11 plumcots, 11 quinces, 1 almond, 6 chestnuts, 3 walnuts, and 113 plums and prunes.” Some, like the Santa Rosa plum, have fallen out of favor as commercial crops but are still grown by home gardeners. Others, like the Elberta peach, are integral to our food economy.
California celebrates Arbor Day today, in honor of Luther Burbank’s birthday. It might be too early to plant a tree in your neck of the woods, but it is a good day to honor the contributions this humble, self-taught plant breeder made to our tables, and to wonder in what garden corner of America is our next Luther Burbank quietly at work?
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