Thursday, August 3, 2017

Pioneer Plant Breeder Luther Burbank 1849-1936

Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, on March 7, 1849.  Over the span of his life, he became known as one of North America's foremost American plant breeders.  Joy Lanzendorfer tells us that Burbank’s career started with a tiny seedpod growing on a potato plant in his Massachusetts garden. Most people would disregard the inedible seedpod, but Burbank had been reading Charles Darwin. Intrigued by Darwin's idea that each plant contains countless possible variations, he planted the 23 seeds. Only two of the resulting plants produced potatoes, but one of them was amazing. It yielded tons of big potatoes with thin brown skin and white flesh. Today a slight variation of the original potato, due to a spontaneous mutation in a farmer’s field, is one of today's most popular.
In 1875, at the age of 26, Burbank sold the rights to the "best white potato," the Russet potato, which he used to improve the disease resistance of Irish potatoes. He sold the rights to the potato for $150  to James J. H. Gregory and used the proceeds to travel to Santa Rosa, from his native Massachusetts. In California, his birthday is celebrated as Arbor Day & trees are planted in his memory. The famed horticulturist made his home in Santa Rosa for more than 50 years, & it was here that he conducted plant-breeding experiments that brought him world fame. Burbank was a man of high goals & firm beliefs. He declared, "We must return to nature and nature's god."
One of Burbank’s goals was to increase the world’s food supply by manipulating the characteristics of plants. Burbank developed an improved spineless cactus which could provide forage for livestock in desert regions.  Joy Lanzendorfer supplies these details. It took Burbank 2 decades to remove the cactus’s spines, a process he called soul testing. “For five years or more the cactus blooming season was a period of torment to me both day and night,” he said. Burbank hoped the spineless cactus would transform deserts into places where cattle could graze. But it turned out that the spineless cactus was delicate. It didn’t like cold and needed regular watering — it just couldn’t survive in most deserts. 
He experimented with thousands of plant varieties & developed more than 800 new named varieties & strains over his 55 year career. He believed that, "The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love."  His work included fruits, flowers, grains, grasses, & vegetables. He introduced new varieties of tomatoes, corn, squash, peas, & asparagus.  He grew new varieties of prunes, plums, raspberries, blackberries, apples, peaches, & nectarines. He developed new types of tomatoes, corn, squash, peas, & asparagus. He also introduced many new flowers, especially lilies & his famous Shasta daisy. Burbank felt that, "Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul."
Lanzendorfer also writes that Burbank was fond of daisies, so he set out to invent his ideal daisy. He wanted large, white blossoms that would bloom for a long period of time. First, he cross-pollinated the oxeye field daisy with the English field daisy. Then he took the best of those plants and crossed them with the Portuguese field daisy—a process that took 6 years. Still unsatisfied—apparently the flowers weren’t white enough—he pollinated these triple hybrids with the Japanese field daisy, which was known for its white blossoms. The result was a flower close to the one in his imagination. He introduced the Shasta Daisy, which took 17 years to finally complete in 1901.
Burbank believed that, "Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay-fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education." Burbank also appreciated adults.  He was a friend of Thomas Edison & Henry Ford, & both men journeyed to California in 1911, to visit him at his Burbank experimental garden. Burbank’s legacy inspired Santa Rosa’s annual Rose Parade, an annual explosion of flowers in a complex of forms, celebrating Burbank’s work & memory. On Burbank’s death in 1926, he was buried under the Cedar of Lebanon in his front yard.

For more details, see:
Burbank, Luther, 1849-1926 Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application: Volumes I - XII (1914)
Bailey, Liberty H. (August 1901). "A Maker of New Fruits and Flowers: How Luther Burbank Breeds New Varieties of Plants on His California Farm". The World's Work: A History of Our Time. II: 1209–1214. 
Burbank, Luther. "The Training of the Human Plant". Century Magazine, May 1907.
Smith, Jane S. (2009). The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank 
Burbank, Luther. The Canna and the Calla: and some interesting work with striking results. 
Burbank, Luther with Wilbur Hall, Harvest of the Years. This is Luther Burbank's autobiography published posthumously after his death in 1926.
Burbank, Luther. 1939. An Architect of Nature. Same details as ref. above, publisher: Watts & Co. (London) 'The Thinker's Library, No.76'
Burt, Olive W. Luther Burbank, Boy Wizard. Biography published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1948 aimed at intermediate level students.
Dreyer, Peter, A Gardener Touched With Genius The Life of Luther Burbank,  L. Burbank Home & Gardens; New & expanded edition (January 1993)
Kraft, K. Luther Burbank, the Wizard and the Man. New York : Meredith Press, 1967 
Pandora, Katherine. "Luther Burbank". American National Biography. Retrieved on 2006-11-16.(September 1903). "King of Horticulture". Overland Monthly. XLII: 226–233.< Tuomey, Honoria. "Luther Burbank, Scientist." Out West magazine, September 1905. pages 201-222. illustrated.

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