growing an ecosystem of abundance

Happy Birthday Luther Burbank

Luther Burbank

From the showy ‘Shasta Daisy’, to the succulent ‘Santa Rosa’, ‘Elephant Heart’, ‘Wickson’ and ‘Inca’ plums, and the delicious but overly vigorous ‘Himalaya’ blackberry, to the ubiquitous ‘Russet Burbank’ potato used to make Mc Donald’s French fries, we have literally hundreds of plants to thank Burbank for.

Born in Lancaster Mass. on this day in 1849, he was the 13th of 15 children, and was sensitive child of fragile health. He began gardening when young, and at age 21 he bought 17 acres with his fathers inheritance. In his fields he discovered a rare potato fruit, from which he derived a valuable new potato variety, the ‘Burbank’ potato.  The money he earned by selling this new variety allowed him to relocate in Santa Rosa California, where he found the best place in the world to grow plants.

During his long productive life, Burbank introduced some 800 varieties of plants by importation from near (native Californian) and far (China and Japan), crossbreeding, selection, multi-grafting, and distribution. He introduced over 100 varieties of plums alone! His neighbors complained that he was a tree burner, not a tree grower, as only 1 in 10,000 seedlings of his countless cross pollinations might be worthy of naming and promoting, with the other 9,999 to be disposed of in dozens of giant burn piles.


Burbank with spineless cactus

Though during his career he worked with no protection of patents, made some poor business alliances that spoiled his reputation, made exaggerations common in the nursery industry (still today!), and frustrated scientists with his non-scientific methods, he got results that we recognized here in California and even internationally. He was a pomological contemporary of professor Edward J. Wickson of the University of California, editor of the ‘Pacific Rural Press’ which often featured  the results of Burbank’s breeding work. Wickson so praised Burbank’s ‘Perfection’ plum, Burbank renamed it ‘Wickson’, still available under that name today.

In another hemisphere, inspired by books describing Burbank’s creations, communist revolutionary I. V. Lennin commissioned Nicolai Vavilov to create the Institute of Breeding and Plant Genetics, and to visit Burbank, leading to the recognition of famed Russian fruit breeder I.V. Michurin.

Some articles and books to better understand the art and industry of Burbank’s life and work:

Crow, James F. Plant Breeding Giants: Burbank, the Artist; Vavilov, the Scientist
includes a great description of Burbank in a obituary by Vavilov.
digitial version:

Blood plum of Satsuma (left upper), Burbank plum (right upper) and crossed plums between the Burbank and Satsuma


Burbank, Luther (1915). Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries, Their Practical Application, I-XII vols. Luther Burbank Press.
Illustrated with dozens of color plates, this work of twelve volumes is an extensive compilation of notes  and writings on Burbank’s work by various ghost writers and editors, in addition to Burbank himself. Volume V on plums is particularly interesting, a couple of images from that chapter are shown above (stoneless plum??!!!).
complete digital version here:

Dreyer, Peter.  A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank

Published in 1993 by Luther Burbank Home & Gardens

This expanded edition provides the best biography of Burbank in print; it also includes “Another Mode of Species Forming” by Burbank (1909), “The Training of the Human Plant” by Burbank (1906), and “Luther Burbank’s Plant Contributions” by W. L. Howard (1945). 230 pages + appendices, some illustrations. The inclusion of Howard’s work (which took years to compile) is one of the few places you can find this most complete list of Burbank’s plant introductions.


Smith, Jane S. The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

His methods were not always purely scientific method, depending on intuition in addition to observation for many of his selections, and often purposely obscure and secretive to protect his work, but his results were renowned. He was seen by an amazed and enchanted public as the ‘Plant Wizard of Santa Rosa’.

Edison, Burbank, and Ford in the garden
He was a contemporary and friend of inventors and industrialists, Edison and Ford. See this silent film visiting Burbank in Santa Rosa, produced by the Ford Motor Co. in 1917:

BurbankGuruji 1924

Yogananda referred to Burbank as “beloved friend”.

Eastern spiritual leader Paramahansa Yogananda visited him regularly, calling Burbank  “An American Saint” in the dedication to his memory in the book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.
He also takes a chapter to describe his fond relationship with Burbank:
Luther Burbank, “A Saint among the Roses”
in 1893 he issued his ‘New Creations in Fruits and Flowers’
Still renowned and sought out years after his death in 1926, his second wife Elizabeth Waters was visited by Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Santa Rosa in 1930, here in this picture at Burbank’s greenhouse. They were each inspired to paint their own representations of Burbank.
Luther Burbank, by Frida Kahlo
Allegory of California, mural by Diego Riveira
with Burbank below the fruit in hand.

Burbank’s mother was a Burpee, making him a cousin of famed seedsman W. Altee Burpee. They visited and admired each other’s work. When W. Altee died in 1915, his 22 year old son David took over. Upon Bubank’s death, Burpee inherited most of Burbank’s extensive flower and vegetable collection.

After Burbank’s death, his wife leased the collection at Gold Ridge in Sepastopol to Starks Bros. Nursery of Missouri (founded 1816), who then released the famed ‘July Elberta’ peach and other selections from the extensive test grounds. They actually trademarked the Burbank name to describe his varieties. Though most of the trees were destroyed by Starks Bros. (so as to hide anything good they missed),  Elizabeth sold the Goldridge Farm to be used for low-cost elder housing, with the stipulation that a few acres would be preserved as orchard- and so it stands today as a public park in Sebastopol.

During his lifetime he mentored many workers, and one named Fred Anderson later went on his own to work on breeding fruit, creating the famed ‘Le Grand’ line of nectarine cultivars. A young man worked under Anderson, another generation learning the methods of Burbank, his name was Floyd Zaiger.

Now working with his family business that includes three generations, Zaiger is the renowned breeder of many, many ‘inter-specific hybrids’. Going beyond Burbank’s basic ‘plum-cot’ plum X apricot, he went on to back-cross again with plums to create the ‘Pluot’, and crossing the ‘plum-cot’ with the apricot to make ‘Apriums’, both trademarked names. With careful record keeping, and thousands of hand cross pollinations, grow outs and trial and selections, very complex hybrids are developed with low chill tolerance, self fertility, high sugar, resistance to bruising, high coloring and other desirable characteristics.

Though Burbank was only awarded patents for some of his plants after his death, Zaiger is able to exclusively license, and collect royalties from his new creations for 20 years, enjoying US plant patent protection, through the Dave Wilson Nursery here in the USA, and with other nurseries throughout the world.

Since Zaiger’s creations began to be patented back in the early 90’s, several have since had their patents expire, now free to propagate, they are now being exchanged at our annual CRFG scion exchanges. There we might find the scions of Burbank’s ‘Inca’ Asian plum from 1919, along side Zaiger’s ‘Flavor Queen’ interspecific hybrid he submitted for patent in 1991.
So we celebrate Luther Burbank’s birth today, some one hundred and sixty four years ago.
Thank you Luther Burbank for sharing your love of plants with us.

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