Because I share my enjoyment of flowers with millions of other people, I became interested in the work of Luther Burbank. He, along with George Washington Carver became famous for a life’s work out of horticultural research. Both men were, at first, considered to be crackpots by the general public. Both of them certainly would have embraced the slogan, “Think outside of the box.” Unfortunately, the two men never met one another. Can you imagine what their collaboration would have been like?
Luther Burbank was born on March 7, 1849 in rural Lancaster, Massachusetts. Luther was the 13th child out of 15. While he got “lost in the herd” and didn’t obtain much formal education, he did become fascinated with the plants in his mother’s garden. That garden is where his budding interest in horticulture, took root.
When Luther was 21-years-old, his father died. Luther’s share of the inheritance enabled him to purchase a 17-acre farm. It was at this farm that he developed the famous Burbank potato. He sold the rights to that potato for $150 (nearly $5,000 in 2015 dollars). He used the money to relocate to Santa Rosa, California near three of his brothers farms.
In 1877, Burbank purchased a four-acre farm, upon which he built his nursery and greenhouse. He used most of the remaining land to establish fields where he could conduct many of his plant experiments. He started his crossbreeding projects in the spring of 1878. It’s interesting to note that Burbank’s early work was inspired by The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication by Charles Darwin.
To provide an income, Burbank gathered and sold specimens for botanical collectors. He then branched into the sales of garden shrubbery and potted flowers. Eventually, he got into the wholesale orchard business. In 1881, a speculator who wanted to become an orchard operator in the span of a year, hired Burbank to provide a solution. Burbank rented land, hired several temporary farm workers, and used his newly developed grafting techniques. He grafted slower growing plum tree buds onto fast-growing almond tree sprouts. The production of nearly 20,000 plum trees in less than a year, launched Burbank’s reputation as the “Wizard of Santa Rosa”.
He soon began importing seeds from different regions of the Earth to his new experimental nursery in Sebastopol, near Santa Rosa. In 1885, twelve healthy samples of Satsuma plum from Yokohama, Japan arrived. He grafted the Japanese plum buds to native California plums. The resulting fruit had a bright red flesh and ripened several weeks earlier than common varieties.
In the next several years, Burbank introduced more than 100 new plum varieties. Many of them were hardy enough to be classified as “good shippers” that enabled the fruits to be delivered fresh to distant markets by railroad express. One of the most popular varieties, the Santa Rosa Plum, is enjoyed yet today.
The most important step in his reputation and reknown as a world-famous plant inventor was his catalogue, “New Creations in Fruits and Flowers”. Unlike other nursery wholesalers catalogues, Burbank’s was targeted towards commercial growers who could cultivate his plants for further sale to retailers.
Some prudish competitor nurserymen, who received the “New Creations” catalogue, expressed outrage at a mere human calling himself a creator of new life. More astute retailers understood and appreciated that selling Burbank created plants added much more value to his product line. In effect, by buying Burbank plants, they were “grafting” the master’s fame onto their own product lines.
Even though Burbank lacked formal training in agriculture, biology, botany, and horticulture, he gained respect from scientists because of his many successes and new products. Scientists had to overlook Burbank’s abysmal record keeping methods, or total lack of record keeping. Burbank prefered the dirty work with his hands over that of keeping track of his experiments on paper.
In 1903, the California Academy of Science marked its 50th anniversary by awarding Luther Burbank a gold medal. They declared Burbank as the most important scientist of the past half-century. The president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, appointed Burbank as the Special Lecturer on Evolution. Starr later published a collection of articles that was titled The Scientific Aspects of Luther Burbank’s Work. Furthermore, the Carnegie Institution of Washington DC granted him the previously unheard of sum of $10,000, annually, for further experimentation and investigation of plants.
It was the development of the “spineless cactus” that many pupils learn about in school lessons about Burbank. He had envisioned that the new cactus might open the world’s deserts to cattle grazing. It was promoted as a cattle feed and as a newly convenient fruit for human beings. The motivation for a thornless cactus came from a real need, but were pushed forward by the get-rich-quick mentality of California entrepreneurs.
Promoters ignored warnings that the thornless cactus was not a panacea for desert ranchers. The new plant required fertile fields and plenty of irrigation, ingredients the desert lacks. Furthermore, fencing was required to protect the defensless plants from rabbits. The spineless cactus became a lesson in marketing a product still under development. Over-confident planters ordered thousands of plants to be delivered when the cacti were available. It turned out that orders far outstripped the ability of the Burbank company to supply.
The supply problem was compounded by a fraud unbeknownst to Luther Burbank. The company directors purchased normal cacti with spines and burned off or otherwise doctored the plants to look like spineless varieties. Of course the doctored plants were discovered as bogus by the buyers, so trust in the company was destroyed. When the corporation had collapsed into bankruptcy, Burbank was also suing the directors for non-payment due on his original contract. Even though the company operated under his name, Burbank was not responsible for the mistake. However, his reputation as a supplier was severely damaged.
In the end, his celebrity was still appreciated. His future creations were only sold to well-known, reputable nurseries and through his own efforts. His influence carried over into lobbying to establish a patent process to protect the efforts of inventors and their plants on new, distinct varieties of asexually reproduced plants. The “Plant Patent Act of 1930” helped to encourage more people to enter the field of plant breeding and research.
In that Burbank seemed to have a special communication with plants, he gained the admiration of such people as India’s Yogananda and Helen Keller. He had also befriended such luminaries as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Burbank described his philosophical beliefs as such:
“Preconceived notions, dogmas, and all other personal prejudice and bias must be laid aside. 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. She conveys her truths only to those who are passive and receptive. Accepting these truths as suggested, wherever they may lead, then we have the whole universe in harmony with us.”
Luther Burbank suffered a heart attack and became ill in March of 1926. Burbank died on April 11, 1926 and was interred near the greenhouse at Luther Burbank Home and Gardens. He left behind, a legacy of at least 800 varieties and strains of fruits, vegetables, grasses, grains, and flowers. His love of research and education lives on as inspiration to modern scientists and teachers.