Luther Burbank – The Germination of a Brand


Luther Burbank’s life was a testament to the idea that if you follow your passion, the money will come.

Luther Burbank, born in Massachusetts on March 7, 1849, was the thirteenth of Samuel Walton Burbank’s fifteen children and undoubtedly the most famous. Luther Burbank would become famous worldwide for his development of more than 800 varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, cactus, grains, and grasses.  The press would call him the “plant wizard.”

Luther was brought up on a farm and attended grade school but much preferred the outdoors as his botany laboratory. Burbank’s love of plants seems to have been an inherited trait. Luther’s mother, Olive Ross, loved to work in her huge garden; she was part of the Burpee family, and her father had developed several kinds of grapes as a hobby.

In 1870, the 21-year-old Burbank received an inheritance from his father that enabled him to purchase seventeen acres of land on which he proceeded to produce crops for a truck gardening business. Luther began his lifelong pursuit of plant development and introduction into the market place. One day Burbank spotted a rare seed pod on a red skinned “Early Rose” potato.  Apparently in Massachusetts, the “Early Rose” seldom flowered and a seed pod only develops after the blooming.  Potatoes were regularly grown from planting a piece of potato with an eye rather than from seed.  Out of curiosity, Burbank planted the contents of the seed pod the next spring.  According to Mother Earth News, potatoes grown from seed do not stay true to the parent but revert back to their ancestry. The resulting large, white, smooth skinned tubers would prove to be the turning point in the future of Luther Burbank. In 1875 Luther sold the entire crop of tubers to another grower for $150 (or approximately $3,125 in today’s dollars).  In 1876 the seeds man, James Gregory, introduced “Burbank’s Seedling” in his catalogue.  Gregory permitted Burbank to keep ten of the tubers. There were no patents on plants in those days, and the Burbank potato was widely distributed and renamed. Two of the many improved varieties are the Russet Burbank and the Idaho Russet.

In 1875, with the profits from the sale of his potatoes and property, Burbank took a train across the country to join his half- brothers and to begin his work in California. Burbank was not quite an overnight success. In fact, Luther’s letters home about his intermittent work and illness brought his mother and sister on the run to California to care for him.  His mother bought a house in Santa Rosa, and Luther rented some acres adjoining the property. Burbank began growing plants and trees while working as a carpenter by day. His profits slowly increased every year with his growing reputation as a good plant man.

Burbank was in the right place at the right time. The transcontinental railroad had been completed and California sun dried fruits were being shipped to Chicago. Prunes were an extremely good crop for shipping, but the demand was greater than the stock available. (Note: the names plum and prune were often used interchangeably however prune came to be known as the smaller fruit with a small stone that could be easily dried.) In March 1881, Warren Dutton, a wealthy banker and merchant asked Burbank to provide him with 20,000 prune trees for planting in December. Burbank accepted the challenge.  He rented additional land, hired workers, and proceeded to sprout almonds in wet burlap on sand. The almonds began to sprout in 14 days and he begins to plant them. The next two months he and his crew proceed to attach prune buds to the 20,000 almond seedlings.  When the prune bud made a good union with the almond stalk, the top of the almond stalk was bent over to force the growth into the bud.  As the prune buds grew, they were tied to the almond stalk for support. (This June bud technique had been done in the South for peaches but never in California). When the prune buds were a foot high, the almond tops were removed. Burbank subsequently delivered 19,500 prune trees in December 1881 with a promise that the other 500 would be ready the next season.

His reputation as a nurseryman established, Burbank began his experiments with cross breeding. By 1884 it is said his income was in excess of $10,000. Luther purchased 18 acres in nearby Sebastopol for his experimental gardens, improved the soil and purchased seeds and seedlings from South America and Japan.  Looking for an edge over his competition, Burbank looked for new offerings— “Novelties” he called them in his catalogues.  He was not the first or only company to offer Japanese plums, but he had developed an extensive list of varieties of plums including a wild beach plum from the Atlantic coast.  A yellow plum named “Burbank” was a very productive, dwarf variety still popular in home gardens today.  By 1888 he had sold his nursery of standard plants to his partner, R. W. Bell but continued with the development of new varieties.

One of Burbank’s earliest projects, the Shasta daisy, took him fifteen years of development before it attained his seemingly impossible list of ideal qualifications including large size, early blooming, long blooming, bright white color, and sturdy stems. He started with a wild field daisy known as an oxeye (Leucanthemum vulgare). He planted the seeds he had brought with him from New England and allowed the insects to freely pollinate the rows.  He selected and saved the seeds of the best flowers and planted them again. He never saw any improvement in the subsequent plants. He then took the best of the oxeye flowers and hand pollinated them with pollen from the English daisy (Leucanthemum maximum) in 700’-long rows.  These daisies bloomed the first season, earlier and with larger and more abundant flowers than either of the parent species. Seeking even more improvement, Burbank dusted the best of these hybrid blossoms with pollen from the Portuguese field daisy (Leucanthemum lacustre). For the next six years he selected the best of these triple pollinated hybrids from among a half- million flower heads.  He would keep the best and destroy the rest of the plants.  Although the resulting daisies were far superior to the parent species, they did not have the bright white color he desired. Once again he chose the best flowers and this time dusted them with pollen from a Japanese field daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum) that was the color white he desired although a small flower.  Finally, two years later in 1901 Burbank introduced his new flower named the Shasta Daisy Hybrids for the snow covered peak of Mt. Shasta (Leucanthemum x superum).  Botanically speaking they were a new species.  In 1904 his Shasta Daisies varieties had names:  Alaska, California, and Westralia. Shasta Plant breeders continue to this day and more than 100 varieties have been introduced since 1901. (

Luther Burbank was at times a media darling and considered a scientific genius. His opinion was asked about all sorts of topics regardless of his knowledge of the subject.  Even academics were coming to his home in Santa Rosa trying to find the answers to their questions about genetics. This was still early in the science of genetics when Mendel’s work (with dominant and recessive traits) was not yet widely known. For five years the Carnegie Institute was giving Burbank grants of $10,000 a year so that he could continue his plant research. Finally, frustrated with Burbank’s poor record keeping and contaminated conditions (for example: plants were thought to be in rows too close to each other so that they might have been cross pollinated) that kept them from being able to write a report, the Carnegie Institute withdrew their financial support. Burbank was a businessman developing hundreds of new varieties and had little time or interest to devote to the scientific method and papers. In addition, patents for plants were not available in his lifetime so he wasn’t eager to release for free the results of years of his work.  He sold his name to some business arrangements that were not well handled by the partners and as a result Burbank’s reputation was tarnished. He was a quiet, humble and charming man that enjoyed friendships with Ford and Edison, professors from University of California and others but he did not like to give speeches in public or write articles. Burbank had his detractors as well as supporters in the business.  In spite of the detractors, after 55 years in the nursery business, Burbank died a wealthy man.  In  1926 his estate was appraised at over $168,624.  Using the inflation calculator listed below: $168,624 of 1926 dollars would be worth: $2,248,320.00 in 2014

In 1926 Burbank was buried in an unmarked grave in his yard under his favorite tree – a Cedar of Lebanon.

 Major Plant Contributions Introduced by Luther Burbank:

POTATO: ‘Burbank’ FRUITS: 113 Plums and Prunes, 10 Different Apples, 16 Blackberries, 13 Raspberries, 10 Strawberries, 35 Fruiting Cacti, 10 Cherries, 2 Figs, 4 Grapes, 5 Nectarines, 8 Peaches, 4 Pears, 11 Plumcots, 11 Quinces, 1 Almond, 6 Chestnuts, 3 Walnuts GRAINS, GRASSES AND OTHER FORAGE: 9 Different kinds VEGETABLES: 26 Different kinds ORNAMENTALS: 91 Different kinds.

— From Luther Burbank’s Plant Contributions By Walter L. Howard, University of California  Bulletin 691, March 1945

In 1930 Congress passes the first Plant Patent Law. Burbank receives patent protection on some of his work.  Plant patents PP12, PP13, PP14, PP15, PP16, PP18, PP41, PP65, PP66, PP235, PP266, PP267, PP269, PP290, PP291 and PP1041 were issued to Burbank posthumously.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Plant Patent Act of 1930 (enacted on 1930-06-17 as Title III of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, ch. 497, 46 Stat. 703) is a United States federal law spurred by the work of Luther Burbank.

This piece of legislation made it possible to patent new varieties of plants, excluding sexual and tuber-propagated plants (see Plant Variety Protection Act). In supporting the legislation, Thomas Edison testified before Congress in support of the legislation and said,  “This [bill] will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks.”

A Gardener Touched with Genius – The Life of Luther Burbank by Peter Dreyer =1&id=15r