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Luther BurbankLuther Burbank

plant breeder

Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, on March 7, 1849, the son of a farmer. Unable to attend school except during the winter months, he got most of his education by reading books at the local library; he was particularly inspired by Charles Darwin's Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. He graduated from Lancaster Academy high school in 1868, after which he bought a 17-acre tract near Lunenberg, where his natural curiosity led him to begin experimenting with plants, to learn their inherited traits, and to try and improve each new crop.

In 1875, Burbank moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he bought land for a nursery. In a few years, he had established a prosperous business. Not interested in business, however, he sold the nursery in 1893 and set up an experimental farm at nearby Sebastopol. His home in Santa Rosa had many rare tres, shrubs, and flowers. He died in Santa Rosa on April 11, 1926.

His Methods

Burbank achieved results by crossing (uniting two plants to produce a third) and selection (choosing the best plants and rejecting the inferior ones). He often grew thousands of plants at one time in an effort to produce one improved species, and every single offspring had to be examined with painstaking care.

His Achievements

Burbank's first discovery came while he was still in Massachusetts, after he planted the contents of a seed pod from the rarely blooming Early Rose Potato. The pod produced 23 widely varying seedlings, each of which Burbank then studied in order to determine which consistently produced the highest quality potatoes. He subsequently sold the best plant to a local plant dealer for $150, and it was this money that allowed him to move to California. An Idaho farmer later created a variant on the Burbank Potato, and the Burbank Russet is now the most widely cultivated potato in the world.

Burbank developed several kinds of berries of commercial value. The Primus Berry, the offspring of the native California Dewberry and the Siberian Raspberry, was the first-known fixed species produced by man. The Phenomenal Berry, derived from the California Wild Dewberry and the Cuthbert Raspberry, is much larger than most other berries and is light crimson in color, while the White Blackberry is so transparent that its tiny seeds are visible through its skin.

His experiments with plums and prunes completely changed the growing of these fruits in California. One remarkable creation is the Plumcot, offspring of a Japanese Plum and the apricot. Its flesh may be yellow, pink, white, or crimson in color. He also developed a plum that tastes like a Bartlett Pear. He created the Pomato, a potato that resembles a small tomato, by selecting from the fruit of the potato.

Burbank also developed several hundred new ornamental plants, including the Shasta Daisy, a cross between the English Daisy, the Wild American Daisy, and their white Japanese cousin.

The Plant Patent Act of 1930 finally permitted the protection of new and distinct varieties of asexually reproduced plants, other than tuber-propagated plants, and Burbank was granted patent #'s 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 41, 65, 66, 235, 266, 267, 269, 290, 291, and 1041 posthumously.


The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978

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This page was last updated on 12/17/2014.

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