You may not know the name Luther Burbank, but if you eat fries from McDonald’s or other processed foods made with potatoes, you’re benefitting from his work.
With St. Patrick’s Day near, it’s a perfect time to take a look at the innovative botanist and horticulturist known as the “Plant Wizard.”
Born in Lancaster, Mass., on March 7, 1849, the 13th of 18 children, he enjoyed working in his mother’s large garden as a child and grew up to be a pioneer in agricultural science.
After his father died when he was 21, Burbank used his small inheritance to buy a 17-acre plot of land near Lunenburg, Mass.He set out to improve the common Irish potato.
Burbank grew 23 seedlings from an Early Rose and discovered one produced two to three times more tubers of a larger size than any other. His potato was even introduced to Ireland to combat the blight epidemic.
Burbank cultivated the strain and started to market it to farmers in the U.S. in 1871. He sold the rights to the Burbank potato for $150 – a windfall at the time – and used the money to travel to Santa Rosa, Calif.
Later, a natural genetic variant of the Burbank with russet-colored skin became known as the Russet Burbank or the Idaho potato. This large, brown–skinned, white-fleshed potato now is the world’s predominant potato in food processing and the most widely cultivated potato in the United States.
In Santa Rosa, Burbank purchased a four-acre plot and established a greenhouse, nursery and, inspired by Charles Darwin, experimental fields that he used to conduct crossbreeding experiments on plants.
He purchased 18 acres in nearby Sebastopol for more experimental growing. At Gold Ridge Farm, Burbank developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including 113 varieties of plums and prunes, 10 varieties of berries, 50 varieties of lilies, and hundreds of vegetables, nuts, grains and ornamental flowers.
His most successful varieties include the Shasta daisy, the Fire poppy, the July Elberta peach, the Santa Rosa plum, the Flaming Gold nectarine, the Wickson plum, the Freestone peach and the white blackberry.
Burbank worked on a huge scale. At any one time he maintained as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. His objective: Improve the quality of plants and thereby increase the world’s food supply.
In March of 1926, Burbank suffered a heart attack and died weeks later on April 11 at age 77. He’s buried near the greenhouse at the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens.
Burbank’s work spurred the passage of the 1930 Plant Patent Act, legislation that made it possible to patent new varieties of plants. He was issued more than a dozen plant patents posthumously.
In 1986, Burbank was inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The Luther Burbank Home and Garden in Santa Rosa has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Three acres of Burbank’s original Gold Ridge Experiment Farm are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Married twice, he didn’t have any children. His autobiography “Harvest of the Years” was published in 1927.
– Mary Beth Bennett is a WVU Extension agent. Reach her at 264-1936 or
MBBennett@mail.wvu.edu or go online to