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Luther Burbank's Plant Contributions
by:W. L. Howard
In this historical study, conducted over a period of ten years, the purpose has been to search out and record, as far as possible, all the plant contributions made by Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, California. Burbank was born in Massachusetts in 1849 and died in Santa Rosa in 1926. During his working lifetime (1873-1926) he probably contributed or...
In this historical study, conducted over a period of ten years, the purpose has been to search out and record, as far as possible, all the plant contributions made by Luther Burbank of Santa Rosa, California. Burbank was born in Massachusetts in 1849 and died in Santa Rosa in 1926. During his working lifetime (1873-1926) he probably contributed or introduced more plants than any other single American in our history. Many of his productions have been of great importance to horticulture, past and present. Yet no one hitherto has attempted to catalog them all, giving their dates, sources, and descriptions, sketching their history, and estimating their value. Burbank was not connected with a learned institution and indeed had little scientific training. Starting his professional life as a market gardener in Massachusetts about 1870, he attempted to improve his vegetables by crossing varieties. To meet competition he tried to produce earlier-maturing types; but he had little success because he did not then know the importance of continuing his crosses to the second and third generations. His curiosity led him to sow the contents of a single seedpod that he found on a plant of the Early Rose potato, a well-known variety with a red skin. Of the twenty-odd seedlings that resulted, one produced a cluster of tubers that were uniformly large, smooth, and white-skinned. This was sold to a dealer who named it the Burbank. After seventy years, this variety is still grown commercially in some parts of the country; for example, the Delta region of California. In other places, such as southern Idaho, it has been improved slightly and renamed. In Idaho alone it is the basis of a huge industry. Like Thomas Edison, Burbank was a self-made man. In the 1850’s and 1860’s he attended the village schools and, for one year, the Lancaster Academy. This education, though inadequate, was better than most boys of his day enjoyed. With his father’s death, when Burbank was nineteen, his schooling ended. He had given much thought to the improvement of economic plants. Darwin’s books, especially Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, strongly impressed his youthful mind and showed him how to attain improvements through variation and selection. After his success with the potato, he definitely decided to make plant breeding his lifework.
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