“The successful plant developer must be able to look beneath the surface of his [her] plants to discover and utilize the underlying harmonies.”—Luther Burbank (Burbank, 1914)
Luther Burbank (7 Mar. 1849 to 11 Apr. 1926) was an amazingly charismatic person with a reputation as the plant “wizard.” He referred to himself as a “plant inventor,” the equivalent in horticulture to what his friends and colleagues, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, were in engineering.
Burbank was a focused plant breeder. He had a combination of rough-cut, dirt-under-the-fingernails knowledge of a horticulturist and the sharp eyes of a plant breeder who could instantly delineate the smallest difference in the color of a petal or width of a stem. He was so vigorous and energetic in selecting plants that his helpers could hardly keep up (Howard, 1945). His business strategy was to produce novel plants and sell them outright to plant nursery brokers such as John Lewis Childs and others. This allowed him to continue his favorite work: breeding and selection.
Although long-term recognition came from significant cultivar releases in many crops, he had a fondness for berries, calling them the “Cinderella of the pomological family.” He made many forays into the development of berries from wild species from around the world. He educated and encouraged other breeders and nursery people to improve small fruits (Burbank, 1914). Burbank loved children and welcomed the opportunity to teach them about nature and the plant world. The breeding narratives of his 12-volume book, “Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application” (Burbank, 1914), are intermingled with tales about and for children. He bred plants for the future of humankind.
Burbank was inspired by Darwin and became a literal disciple of his theory of variation of species and natural selection. Burbank realized that plants in nature were not fixed and could be manipulated by humans for improvement and use. Burbank’s breeding protocol was to make wide crosses, including unusual intergeneric ones such as apples with blackberries or strawberries with raspberries. Next he produced millions of hybrid seedlings. With such great numbers of offspring, he then selected only a few having his traits of choice and discarded the remainder. He had only 20 acres of land including both his Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, CA, farms (Smith, 2009), so if seedlings did not perform, they were quickly pulled and burned. He backcrossed seedlings with desired traits to the parent for several generations, focused on his specific breeding objectives, and culling the rest (Howard, 1945). This recurrent selection proved successful with a broad array of plant genera, although Burbank had no clear knowledge of chromosomes, ploidy, or gene recombination. Not understanding genetics or mutation, he denied Mendel’s theory throughout his career, although his results were supportive.
This article has two objectives. The first is to broadly summarize Burbank’s work on small fruit and berry crops. The second is to emphasize his efforts on Rubus including his development of thornlessness, pigment mutation, and interspecific crosses. In addition, Burbank’s efforts will be integrated into current work on small fruit and berry breeding and genetics.
BurbankL.1914Vols. 1 2 3 and 6. In: Whitson J. R. John and H.S. Williams (eds.). Luther Burbank: His methods and discoveries and their practical application. Luther Burbank Press New York NY
FairchildD.1944The world was my garden: Travels of a plant explorer. Charles Scribner’s Sons New York NY. p. 132 263–265
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HowardW.L.1945Luther Burbank’s plant contributions. Bull. 691. University of California Berkeley CA
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SmithJ.S.2009The garden of invention: Luther Burbank and the business of breeding plants. Penguin Press New York NY