Thursday, 04 February 2021 13:25
By Peter Bowden | Home & Garden
Photos by Peter Bowden. Photos by Peter Bowden.

We take the introduction of a new plant cultivar or variety as nothing too unusual but there was a time when such progress took years. 

A hundred years ago, there was one man, Luther Burbank, who stunned the world with his plant breeding genius. Burbank introduced over 1,000 plant varieties that had never been seen before. His achievements were so astounding that he was initially considered a fake by the established scientific community. 

In 1871, he used an inheritance from his father’s estate to buy a 17 acre farm in Lunenberg, Massachusetts where he took up vegetable farming for a living. A forward thinker, Burbank was fully convinced by the writings of Charles Darwin and his theories on evolution. When a potato plants in his garden produced a seed ball (rare for potatoes), Burbank realized that it would have seeds that would NOT breed true to the type of potato that had produced them. He let the seed ball ripen produced 23 seeds. He grew the seeds hoping for a new variety.  Indeed, one of the seeds produced a white skinned potato much larger than its red skinned parent. It was the famous “Burbank Potato” which was far and away the best variety ever produced. Burbank sold the potatoes he’d produced to a seed producer for $150.

With his newfound funds and tempted by tales in letters from his two brothers in California, Luther sold the farm and took ten of his new potatoes and set out.  Burbank’s new potato variety provided him funds to travel and a bit of a name in the agricultural community. It also led him to believe that there were new discoveries to be made. Burbank arrived in Santa Rosa and shortly after read Darwin’s “The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom” which further inspired him to the possibilities of plant breeding. 

Refrigerated transportation hadn’t been invented yet so farmers in California concentrated on crops that could be dried before shipping. A banker in Santa Rosa wanted to get in on the boom and offered $6,000 to anyone who could provide 20,000 prune trees in 9 months; a feat considered impossible.  Burbank devised a plan to graft plum buds onto faster growing almond seedlings. The idea was a success and Burbank stunned locals and earned the $6,000; a tidy sum in 1882. With this money, Burbank purchased land and a cottage and began plant breeding in earnest.

Ten years later, Burbank had enough new stock to offer plants for sale in a mail order catalog. When his catalog came into the hands of eastern and European botanists, it created quite a stir. Burbank’s catalog offered over 100 plant varieties from fruit trees to flowers that had never been seen before! Burbank offered an apple that was sweet on one side but sour on the other, a new giant form of daisy (Shasta), and even a cross between a strawberry and raspberry.  The offerings were so outlandish that most believed the catalog to be a hoax.

A Dutch botanist, Hugo De Vries, was so intrigued that he traveled all the way to Santa Rosa to see for himself. Even before De Vries reached the front door of Burbank’s cottage, he knew that there was something special going on. De Vries had expected a much larger facility with a great deal of scientific research going on. Instead, he found Burbank in his cottage with sparse notes scribbled on bits of paper scattered about. 

What amazed all that did visit was Burbank’s uncanny ability to select one plant from among thousands that would suit his goal. A county agricultural agent commented, “He’d go along a row of gladioli, yanking out the ones he didn’t want as fast as he could.  He seemed to have an instinct that told him if a tiny plant would grow up to bear the kind of fruit he wanted. I couldn’t see any difference in them, even if I stooped and looked closely, but Burbank did no more than glance at them.”

Gradually, the world embraced Burbank for the genius he was. He seemed to have a special communication with plants and admitted that he talked to them to offer encouragement and his love and admiration. He believed that they could sense his feelings and desires. Helen Keller, after visiting Burbank wrote, “He has the rarest of gifts, the receptive spirit of a child. Only a wise child can understand the language of flowers and trees.”

Burbank expressed it this way, “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 was an amazing man whose philosophy could be easily dismissed were it not for the fact that he achieved results that advanced agriculture decades in a few short years.  If you follow Burbank’s advice, you may find yourself sitting quietly in your garden listening to the wisdom of a flower.


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