Luther Burbank

The American plant breeder Luther Burbank (1849-1926) originated many varieties of garden plants, grains, and fruits. He was popularly known as a "wizard" because of the stream of new and improved forms that came from his experimental farm.

In Luther Burbank's youth, botany was beginning to shed its taxonomic preoccupation and the interest of scientists was shifting to questions related to the theory of evolution—variation, species formation, modes of reproduction, and environmental effects. To a long-standing American interest in importation of foreign plant varieties was added an interest in the experimental production of improved forms. Agricultural experimental stations began to dot the country during the 1890s. Although Burbank was not a scientist and was essentially uninterested in scientific questions, he nevertheless drew his inspiration from this new scientific work, and his own success served to intensify public interest in such investigations.

Burbank was born on March 7, 1849, in Lancaster, Mass., the son of a farmer and maker of brick and pottery. He attended the district school until he was 15 and then spent four winters at the Lancaster Academy. Most of his scientific education, however, was obtained from reading at the public library in Lancaster. According to his own account, his reading of Charles Darwin's Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication in 1868 proved the turning point in his career, causing him to take the production of new species and varieties of plants as his life's work.

Beginning the Work

In 1870, 2 years after the death of his father, Burbank used his inheritance to help purchase a tract of 17 acres near the small town of Lunenburg, where he took up the business of market gardening. Here he produced his first "creation," the Burbank potato, and began the work that was to make him famous.

Despite his success as a market gardener, in 1875 Burbank decided to sell his land and move to California, where his three older brothers had already moved. He settled in Santa Rosa, where he would carry on his work for the next 50 years. Later he added a small amount of acreage adjoining a nearby town.

Following the Empirical Method

Although Burbank had read the scientific literature, he never operated as a scientist and apparently never thought of himself as one. His methods were empirical; he imported plants from foreign countries, made crosses of every conceivable kind—often for no apparent reason except, as he said, to get "perturbation" in the plants so as to get as wide and as large a variation as possible—and grew hundreds of thousands of plants under differing environmental conditions. He kept records only for his own use; once a project was completed and a new plant on the market, the records were generally destroyed. An effort made by the Carnegie Institution of Washington to collate the scientific data that came out of Burbank's experiments collapsed after a few years.

Although Burbank's methods were empirical, he did develop a store of knowledge that proved invaluable. This special knowledge (as emphasized by two scholars who studied the scientific aspects of his work) concerned correlations. Thus a minute, almost undetectable, variation in a young leaf, for example, may imply (or correlate with) a sweeter or plumper fruit, or a larger and more perfect flower. In his years of experimentation, Burbank gained an unrivaled mastery of such correlations, which, combined with his unusually keen sensory abilities, largely accounted for his success.

Originating New Forms

Burbank's creative work ranged over a long list of plants, but his strongest interests were in plums, berries, and lilies. He originated more than 40 new varieties of plums and prunes, mostly from multiple crossings in which Japanese plums played a prominent part. His work with berries, extending over 35 years, resulted in the introduction of at least 10 new varieties, mostly obtained through hybridizations of dewberries, blackberries, and raspberries. His years of experimentation with lilies resulted in a brilliant array of new forms, many of which became the most popular varieties in American gardens.

Best known among Burbank's flowers are the Shasta daisy, the blue Shirley poppy and the Fire poppy, and the fragrant calla. His wide range of techniques is illustrated by these. The Shasta daisy, a favorite of Burbank, was the result of a multiple crossing between a European and an American species of field daisy and then between these hybrids and a Japanese variety. The Shirley poppy was obtained by long selection from a crimson European poppy. The Fire poppy was a hybrid from a butter-colored species and a pure-white species that had a dull red in its ancestry. The fragrant calla, which has a perfume resembling that of the violet, was discovered by accident in a flat of Little Gem calla seedlings. His new fruits, besides the many plums and prunes, included varieties of apples, peaches, quinces, and nectarines. One of his less profitable creations, the result of an effort to excite "perturbations," was a cross between the peach and the almond. At one time or another, he worked with virtually all the common garden vegetables. One of his most unusual experiments resulted in the production of a series of spineless cacti useful for feeding cattle in arid regions.

Applying Principles to Humans

Burbank's work with plants convinced him that the key to good breeding was selection and environment, and he, like so many others of his time, tried to apply his concepts to human society. The product of his thinking on this subject was first published in 1907 as The Training of the Human Plant. Yet despite his vast experience in plant breeding, this book revealed his firm belief in the then-discredited theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics; accordingly, unlike most eugenists of the period, he stressed education and the provision of a good environment generally as the best way to remake human society.

Burbank was an honorary member of leading scientific societies all over the world. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Royal Horticultural Society. In 1905 he was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by Tufts College. He died on April 11, 1926.

Further Reading on Luther Burbank

Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application, edited by John Witson (12 vols., 1914-1915), was written under Burbank's direction. For an intimate account by Burbank's sister, Emma Burbank Beeson, see The Early Life and Letters of Luther Burbank (1927), which had been published in 1926 as The Harvest of the Years. Biographical material is also in Henry Smith Williams, Luther Burbank: His Life and Work (1915). For a favorable assessment of Burbank's scientific work see David Starr Jordan and Vernon L. Kellogg, The Scientific Aspects of Luther Burbank's Work (1909).

Additional Biography Sources

Dreyer, Peter, A gardener touched with genius: the life of Luther Burbank, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975, Santa Rosa, Calif.: L. Burbank Home & Gardens, 1993.