The Fate of Genius: Luther Burbank

Luther Burbank  was a plant breeding genius who was once our most famous horticulturalist; he was sought out by the rich and famous, inventors and philosophers. But, fame also often draws those who wish to profit off genius or  those who must put their idol on a pedestal where they are not allowed to be themselves. Nowadays, he is hardly mentioned even though it was he who jump-started  plant breeding and pushed it ahead by decades.

Luther Burbank was born 1849 in Massachusetts, a farm boy , thirteenth of eighteen siblings who had a natural curiosity and an innate sense that would lead him toward his future career. He never had an advanced education; he was lucky if he could attend many classes due to the needs of the family farm. But, he was fortunate in having an uncle and a friend working in the Boston Museum who encouraged him in his studies. He would be influenced by Charles Darwin’s Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication which led to his ongoing experiments with plant propagation.

During 1840-1860, Ireland was devastated by a potato blight that caused great famine leading to a vast migration of Irish to the US. Luther turned his attention to thinking about ways in which he could help. In 1873, he found a rare seed pod growing on a strain of Early Rose potatoes that contained 23 seeds, all of which he planted, then selected the two best seedlings. One produced two to three times more and larger tubers than any other potato. He propagated the cluster asexually. This would become the blight resistant Russett Burbank potato which we now refer to as the Idaho Potato.   It helped Ireland eventually recover from the famine. He sold the “rights” to this potato for enough money to move to Santa Rosa, California where he would purchase a small farm on which to do more experimentation.

It turns out that he was no “one hit wonder”, going on to develop over 800 strains of plants;, one which we recognize easily is the Shasta Daisy!  What Luther Burbank was involved in was “classical plant breeding”. This is when closely or distantly related plant lines are deliberately crossed to introduce desirable qualities, traits or genes. There may be backcrossing (progeny with parent) or inbreeding (self with self). Luther did all his pollination by hand! His genius lay in the ability to see an ideal (fruit, veg, flower)  emerging from these experiments and to recognize the various trait pieces from different crosses that would construct this ideal over many generations involving backcrosses, additional hybridizations and so forth. He was moving the plant lineage in a direction that he desired with a goal of fixing those traits into his vision.  He thus acquired an amazing reputation.

Consider the amount of work. There is planting of all seeds resulting from pollination. He dealt with millions of plants involving up to 3000 experiments. On plums alone he tested 30,000 new varieties! Now, from that first generation perhaps 1 in 1000 are saved to go forward to the next or “Second generation” which will have much greater variability. From these the most promising would be selected for further breeding. Can you see the vast patience involved, especially given the wait time to see the results of each generation?  One way to save time was to use grafting skills wherein hundreds of grafts (from seedlings resulting from crosses) were made on the same tree so that a cross could be raised to maturity for evaluation in only a couple years .

Here is the awesome part—he did this all in his head! He took very few notes and tracked the progress of each plant and how he was going to proceed in his brain. As you might imagine, this takes a great deal of meditation to keep focused on the perceived direction for a plant and give concentration to tasks.  He wanted nothing more than to devote his life to working on using his abilities to help mankind through his discoveries.

Alas. He became popular because what he did was so unique. The Santa Rosa and regional economic developers began using his farm to lure tourists. He was overrun constantly by fans and garden groupies who would not go away, wanted to take seeds and plants from his experiments and interfered with his work processes.  He grew to hate the unceasing interruptions and could get grouchy about it.

Alas again. He needed to make money which he loathed having to do. This meant he had to keep churning out novelties that would attract other growers and special retailers to want to buy his plants, taking away  precious time from possibly more life changing agricultural finds. And sometimes they were weird–like white blackberries.

His uncanny way with plants attracted the Carnegie Foundation who offered him a large yearly stipend in 1906. However, the inside agenda was that this was contingent on them wresting his “secret tricks” from him.  They would make money selling this information in a magnum opus advancing scientific interest.   If we recall, this is the height of great materialism and it was all about “Pure Science” with hard replicable data.  So they sent George Shull out to follow Luther around as he did his work.  Shull found few notes written and many things in a cryptic code; almost everything that Luther did was, as mentioned earlier, kept in his brain.  He was more interested in the results rather than the methods of record keeping on paper.  And, he couldn’t and wouldn’t explain his processes to Shull who wanted Luther to give out how everything he did could be examined in terms of newly popular scientific views with which Luther disagreed. Luther considered himself a scientist and was stung when those at Carnegie labeled him a fraud and a tyro, a charlatan and a fake because of his way of working.  He may have thought the stipend was for him to continue with his desired work,as a reward per se. Who knows. Needless to say, Carnegie ended the funding, so he was thrown back into having to make money again.
For many people with great strength in one area, they are lacking in another. Luther was a TERRIBLE businessman who so wanted to offload the responsibility to someone else, but attracted those types who wanted either to profit mostly themselves  or were totally wrong inexperienced choices. Every time he tried to find a way to devote his abilities one-pointedly, he was dragged back to deal with a business disaster. He didn’t know how to oversee his interests.   For example,  companies buying his plants would not maintain his stock properly or would conflate other grower’s items with his so any problems consumers had would be blamed on him.  A company formed by others to oversee his stock and maintain quality tanked due to inexperience of those who were running it in his name.  Independent promoters sent out catalogs with misleading information and junk mail so his reputation often took a hit. Shysters wanting to sell something might just use his name to promote their dubious plans, because he was so popular it was sure to bring in sales. And so on…

The final nail came due to the philosophical stresses of the time in the Scopes Trial when Modernism (that evolutionism was not inconsistent with religion)  contended against Fundamentalism (Bible based only).  There were those who were angry at Luther for referring to his plants as his “creations”.  And many rose up against him when he publically called himself an infidel, meaning that although he believed in God, he did not hold with established religion. And he felt that man should be known by the good he did while he was in the world rather than resting on there being an afterlife. For this he received thousands of letters of hate mail, which he tried to personally answer with kindliness and logic.  But he fell sick from the trying to deal with all of it and  died in 1926.
Wrote his friend Swami Yogananda, “His heart was fathomlessly deep, long acquainted with humility, patience, sacrifice. His little home amid the roses was austerely simple; he knew the worthlessness of luxury, the joy of few possessions. The modesty with which he wore his scientific fame repeatedly reminded me of the trees that bend low with the burden of ripening fruits; it is the barren tree that lifts its head high in an empty boast. “


 Here’s some of his work on plums (Satsuma). Stark Brothers received much of his stock after he died.


1 comment for “The Fate of Genius: Luther Burbank

  1. Karen Rock
    February 21, 2017 at 12:08 am

    What a great article about Luther Burbank! I like reading about early gardening. Thanks Sue for all the work and research you put into this website.

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