Luther Burbank

Burbank, Luther (1849-1926), a United States horticulturist. He developed more than 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and grasses, including the Burbank potato, the plumcot (a cross between a plum and an apricot), and the Shasta daisy. Burbank's chief interest was in experimenting with plant varieties and developing new ones. He was, however, more a practical grower than a scientist. Data from his experiments were not carefully kept, and much information has been lost.

Early Career

Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and attended the Lancaster academy. As a boy he was interested in nature. After working in a factory for a short time, Burbank at 21 bought a small plot of ground and began market-gardening. As his interest in plant breeding grew, he got the idea of developing better plants through selection and producing new varieties through crossbreeding. (Selection is choosing the best plants and rejecting the weaker ones; crossbreeding is uniting two dissimilar plants to produce a third plant, different from both parents.) Burbank hastened the process of evolution by supplying conditions of fertility, heat, and moisture that would bring on changes more quickly than nature.

In 1872, after a two-year process of selection, Burbank produced the Burbank potato, a large, strong plant that resisted insect plagues and did not spoil easily. With the money he earned from selling the rights to his potato, Burbank moved to California. He settled in Santa Rosa and established a nursery for his experiments in plant breeding.

Burbank's Contributions

Although his most famous contribution among vegetables is his potato, Burbank also produced a spineless cactus. It could be used both as food and as livestock forage. Another of his plants was the pomato, a vegetable that grew on a potato vine but resembled a tomato.

In the 40 years Burbank experimented with plums and prunes, he developed 20 new varieties. The plumcot and the Abundance, a stoneless prune, are among the most successful. Burbank also developed new varieties of apples, peaches, and nuts.

Burbank's work with berries extended over 35 years. He introduced 10 new commercial varieties. The Phenomenal is a raspberry and dewberry hybrid of unusual size and quality. The Iceberg, a crossbred white blackberry, is so transparent that its seeds can be seen.

Burbank's experiments with flowers produced the Shasta daisy. It is a combination of the English daisy, the wild American daisy, and the pure white Japanese daisy. He introduced the Fragrance, Splendor, and Dwarf Snowflake callas. Burbank developed new varieties of gladioli, dahlias, clematis, poppies, amaryllids, and roses. He experimented with lilies for 16 years, developing species from six inches (15 cm) to six feet (180 cm) in height.

At the time of Burbank's death more than 3,000 experiments were going on at Santa Rosa.

Burbank was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976.

Burbank's writings include The Training of the Human Plant (1907); Luther Burbank, His Methods and Discoveries (12 volumes, 1914-15); and How Plants Are Trained to Work for Man (8 volumes, 1921).