Luther Burbank still remains the best known horticulturist in the United States and has become a legend as a plant wizard and inventor of plants. In 1940 he appeared on the U.S. postage stamp (Fig. 1) in the Famous Americans series along with John James Audubon (ornithologist and painter), Crawford W. Long (physician and anesthesiologist), Walter Reed (physician and epidemiologist), and Jane Addams (sociologist and reformer). Through his innumerable plant creations (over 800 releases), he became known as a plant breeder extraordinaire, and in his lifetime, he was thought of as the “high priest of horticulture” and the “plant wizard.” His charming personality endeared him to the public. Burbank appears in paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera and he was lionized in the popular press in innumerable articles. After his death, rights to his plant material were sold to Stark Brothers’ Nursery, which sold the vegetables and seed rights to Burpee Seed Company in 1931, where Burbank’s creations continued to be promoted to the public. In 1991 he was elected to the ASHS Hall of Fame and the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens was honored as an ASHS Horticultural Landmark in 2003. His life and career have been the subject of books and articles in the popular and scientific press including works by Peter Dreyer (1993), Walter Howard (1945, 1945–46), Jane S. Smith (2009), and Henry Smith Williams (1915), Williams et al. (1915). His position as a scientist has been critically reviewed by James Crow (2001) and Donald F. Jones (1937).
Luther Burbank (Fig. 2) remains a horticultural enigma and this brief review of his life is an attempt to put his contributions to horticulture and plant breeding into perspective. A retrospective review of his accomplishments is the goal of this workshop. It includes papers entitled “Russet Burbank: No Ordinary Potato” by Charles R. Brown; “A Vast Array of Beauty: The Accomplishments of Luther Burbank, the Father of American Ornamental Plant Breeding,” by Neil O. Anderson and Richard T. Olsen; “Luther Burbank’s Plums” by David A. Karp; “21st Century Approach to Improving Burbank’s ‘Stoneless’ Plum” by Ann Callahan, Chris Dardick, and Ralph Scorza; “Luther Burbank’s Contributions to Walnuts” by John Preece and Gale H. McGranahan; and “Luther Burbank’s Berries” by Kim E. Hummer, Chad E. Finn, and Michael Dossett. These papers make clear that Luther Burbank is justly famous as an extraordinarily successful plant breeder. He intuitively followed the modern rationale of plant breeding by obtaining abundant diversity, using repeated and successive hybridization, and carrying out rigorous selection. He cannot be considered a scientist in the modern sense, but he was clearly a plant breeding artist for above all he had an eye and feel for plants. His success is an affirmation that plant breeding is as much an art as a science. As an innovative plant breeding artist, Luther Burbank remains an inspiration to plant breeders and horticulturists.
Crow, J.F. 2001 Plant breeding giants: Burbank, the artist; Vavilov, the scientist. Genetics 158:1391–1395
Dreyer, P. 1993 A gardener touched with genius: The life of Luther Burbank. 2nd Ed. Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA
Howard, W. 1945 Luther Burbank’s plant contributions. Bul. 691. Chronica Botanic, University of California College of Agriculture, Agricultural Experiment Station, Berkeley, CA
Jones, D.F. 1937 The life and work of Luther Burbank. Spragg Mem. Lectures, Plant Breeding. Michigan State College, East Lansing, MI. p. 37–76
Smith, J.S. 2009 The garden of invention: Luther Burbank and the business of breeding plants. Penguin Books, London. UK
Williams H.S. 1915 Burbank, his life and works. Heart’s International Library Co., New York, NY
Williams H.S., Whitson R.J. & Whitson J. 1914 Luther Burbank, his methods and discoveries. Luther Burbank Press, New York, NY